Whales, Boats, and A Long, Lingering Sadness – A Review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

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The first time I read Moby Dick, it was in undergrad, and was a requirement for the Introduction to Fiction class I was taking at the time. I had very little interest in reading the novel, mostly because it seemed like one of those sad, dreary stories wherein nothing much happens except a lot of nautical language and at some point the whale is sighted and Captain Ahab goes mad. I wasn’t all that interested in deepening my acquaintance with Melville’s masterpiece, but I had to read it because it was required. It wasn’t something I could just coast through, either, as our professor had prepared a long, in-depth midterm examination on the novel, and the only way one could get passing marks on it was to actually read the book.

The thing is, I don’t approach a book very agreeably if I’m being made to read it. If I had been asked to read two books, one of which was Moby Dick, I think I might have approached Melville’s novel more equably, but as it stood at the time, I was somewhat upset that I had to read Moby Dick. So I read it with an eye towards learning its content, not so much for pleasure, absorbing enough of it to pass the exam. After that, I didn’t really think about it.

It was only some years later that I decided to give it a shot again, and read it – willingly, this time. And that reread, done for pleasure and not for the sake of passing an exam, showed me the true joy of reading Moby Dick: not only is it a deep and powerful story that lingers at the back of the reader’s mind long after the book has been closed, but it’s also immensely funny. I don’t know how I missed all the humor that Melville threaded through it, but the reread had me snickering and giggling through much of it.

Around two years ago, I picked up Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, because there was a movie being made of it and I wanted to find out why that was so. I didn’t appreciate the book’s implication that religion is absolutely necessary for living a good life and for being a good person – I’m not an atheist, but implying that one needs religion in order to live a full life is unfair to those who are. And if it weren’t for that, and the question posed at the end (which forced an agreement with Pi’s narrative, instead of offering the option to believe in the more realistic, if more tragic, outcome), I could have really liked Life of Pi, especially because of the writing itself.

So what happens if one were to, say, bring the two books together in one novel? What if one could take the genetic data (so to speak) of Moby Dick, and mix it with the genetic data of Life of Pi? What sort of strange love child would the combination produce?

As it turns out, the answer takes the form of a short, dark-haired, dark-eyed boy named Jaffy Brown, the protagonist of Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie. And though Jamrach’s Menagerie is a clear homage to Moby Dick, and shares many similarities with Life of Pi, it’s a different creature entirely.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, Jamrach’s Menagerie is the story of one Jaffy “Jaff” Brown, who got his start in life (so to speak) by being eaten by a tiger. Or almost eaten, really, but according to Jaffy (who is telling the story in the “present,” as an older man), a part of him was eaten by the tiger that day, so it still counts. Because of that incident, he’s hired by Jamrach, whose business is the buying and selling of exotic animals as pets. There he meets Tim Linver, who shows him the ropes and becomes his best friend, after a fashion. Through Tim he meets Ishbel, Tim’s twin sister, and for a time the world is as it should be.

One day, one of Jamrach’s clients, Mr. Fledge, wants Jamrach to get him a dragon. Jaffy and Tim are chosen to accompany Jamrach’s agent, Dan Rymer, out to sea on the whaling ship Lysander, and off they go to the East Indies, determined to find Mr. Fledge a dragon, bring it home, and make their fortunes.

This is a book where the plot is actually quite simple, but what really makes it as a story is the narrator. As I mentioned earlier, the narrator, Jaffy, isn’t telling the story as it happens, but as something from the past, dredging it up from the depths of his memory and then telling it to someone else – a curious grandchild, perhaps, or customer, or even to a memoirist who is taking this all down for him before he dies, or before the memories slip away from him completely. Birch emphasizes the oral nature of the tale via the fluidity of Jaffy’s language, and the way images and ideas build, one on top of the other, in a way that isn’t strictly logical, but which makes sense when one just goes with the flow of the narration.

It’s also a narrative style I happen to enjoy, if it’s done well – and in this novel, it’s done very well indeed. Though Jaffy’s narrative drifts around a bit, it actually doesn’t meander as much as other novels written in a similar style do; Birch has obviously kept a tight hold on the narrative reins. She also lets the narration speak for Jaffy, subtly building him into a character that I, personally, really like. Whenever I read a book it’s important that I like the narrator, and Jaffy is a very agreeable narrator indeed.

Which is why I find it rather puzzling that the other characters don’t have the same depth as Jaffy. One would think that Jamrach would play a major role, given how his name’s in the title, but his role is actually very small, and we don’t really get to see any great depth of characterization for him. The same can be said for Dan Rymer, Ishbel, and all the other characters who appear in the novel. The only other character I really remember, aside from Jaffy, is Tim, and that’s only because he’s such a hateful little turd. I don’t think I’ve ever hated a character so deeply before – and yes, that includes Joffrey Baratheon of A Song of Ice and Fire fame. Explaining why I hate Tim more than I hate Joffrey would be giving away too much, but suffice to say I have a very, very good reason for doing so.

And that’s something of a problem, really. Remembering a character solely because I hate them means that they were never really developed with any amount of depth. I suppose it’s somewhat understandable, because of the vagaries of unreliable narrators, but I still wish that the characters had been developed a bit more deeply, that there had been enough room in the story for the other characters, aside from Jaffy, to really grow into something fuller and more substantial.

That’s another small problem I have with this novel: its rather small scope. Given the nature of the characters, the setting, and Birch’s language, I was hoping for a much longer read, something with a bit more substance, something that would let Birch’s prose really show its legs, let the characters grow into something more than what they were at the start of the story. Except that’s not the case: the story is much smaller than I thought initially, and goes very dark, very quickly. I’m not opposed to darkness in a story, and Birch handles those terrible events very well. It’s just that the novel went there so very quickly, when I had been expecting something more to happen.

Maybe the whole point of this novel is really those terrible, tragic events towards the middle of the book, the Life of Pi-esque moments that turned Jaffy into who he is at the end of the story. Those are some beautifully written, exquisitely painful moments, and I can see why they are so very important, but I still find myself wishing that there had been more. It certainly felt like there could have been more, at any rate.

Overall, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a fine read: Birch’s language is exquisite, and the way she’s written Jaffy, the narrator, will please anyone who’s met Ishmael and Pi before, and liked them. But take note that this doesn’t have the same scope as Moby Dick or Life of Pi: the other characters, besides Jaffy, aren’t drawn nearly so well as those in Melville’s novel, nor is the thematic scope as great as Martel’s book. The characters feel bit like sketches of who they could be, and the story feels like it could stand to be a bit bigger. It’s not a bad book, just one that feels like a child that could stand to do a bit more growing-up, before going out into the wider world. If the reader doesn’t mind that feeling, then they will surely enjoy Birch’s fine prose, and Jaffy himself. Otherwise, approach this novel with the expectation that it won’t grow into anything larger than what it already is.

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2 thoughts on “Whales, Boats, and A Long, Lingering Sadness – A Review of Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

  1. I’ve had people look at me as if I’m insane when I tell them Moby Dick is funny. Glad to see someone else gets it!

    And really, who doesn’t sometimes have the impulse to knock off people’s hats?

    1. It took me a while and a second reading to see the humor in Moby Dick, but once I saw it, it was difficult to unsee it, and I was constantly snickering and snorting over the whole thing. I get the feeling that people who don’t find Moby Dick funny are the people who were either forced to read it (as I was, the first time I encountered it), or who haven’t read it at all and have Ahab front-and-center in their minds.

      Because, yes, who HASN’T had the impulse to knock hats off their owners’ heads?

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