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Jamrach's Menagerie Paperback – February 1, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


'Carol Birch's fiction continues to stretch bodies and minds to breaking point ... marvelous and terrifying.' Sunday Times

About the Author

Carol Birch is the author of nine previous novels including Scapegallows and Turn Again Home, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize. She has won the Geoffrey Faber Award and the David Higham Award. She lives in Lancashire.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847676561
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847676566
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,174,949 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Brad Teare VINE VOICE on April 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book has one of the most fascinating first chapters of any book I have read lately. The narrative begins approximately in the 1850s (after discovery of kerosene in 1853 which triggered the demise of whale hunting). The best part of the book is the simple magic of the writing. As with most books enjoyment depends on not knowing too much about how the story unfolds. Suffice it to say the plot involves a young boy who survives an encounter with a tiger in a London slum. The boy later travels the world hunting whales and his ship is commissioned to capture the first Comodo dragon. That will give you the basic story arc without ruining the subtle but unique twists and turns that make this book so readable and enjoyable.

The writing is simple but appropriate for the times and characters, a rare fusion of poetic writing and compelling narrative. I found many of the scenes emotionally powerful and the book reaches a satisfying yet complex conclusion. Late in the book the author does deal with an unsettling theme but I felt it was handled well, being neither prudish nor graphic, but advanced the story in a compelling fashion.

There are sailors that occasionally use the f-word which jarred me out of the historic reverie the author so skillfully wove. I suppose sailors really did talk like that but I prefer less reality since it is absent in the writing of the era. This is a minor complaint. Most won't be bothered by it. I suppose I lead a rather sheltered life but mention this for other readers such as myself.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I thought this was an excellent book. It is gripping, moving and haunting and although it deals with a great deal of suffering and sheer horror, it is often very beautiful.

From the title and some reviews which describe it as "rollicking" and a "romp," I expected a jolly story about a young man becoming involved with an exotic menagerie in Victorian London. It turned out to be very different - a complex, literary novel of the sea as our narrator sets off on a journey on one of the last of the whaling ships under sail to find and capture an exotic, possibly mythical, creature. I found it utterly enthralling, with much to say about the nature of friendship, of growing up, people's behaviour in desperate times, guilt and redemption and much more. It never preaches or philosophises, but presents us with a vivid picture of very real-seeming people, often in extremities of endurance and suffering, and asks us to consider them compassionately. There are incidents and characters here which will remain with me for a long time.

The book also captures wonderfully the atmosphere of Victorian London and of life on a sailing ship and whaler. Melville, Patrick O'Brian and others have set a phenomenally high standard for novels of the sea, whaling and the age of sail but I think Carol Birch, while wholly different from either, matches them for believability and her ability to transport the reader into her world. I thought that the description of the pursuit, killing and processing of a whale was simply brilliant, for example, even though it was familiar from other novels. There were several other passages which were just as good.

The prose was a real pleasure to read.
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Format: Hardcover
Jamrach's Menagerie begins in a seedy nineteenth century London that is reminiscent of Dickens. Charles Jamrach is a dealer in wild animals. When one of his tigers escapes, ten-year-old Jaffy Brown pats it on its nose and winds up in the tiger's mouth. Fortunately for Jaffy, the tiger has recently eaten and is sated. Freed from the tiger's grasp, the uninjured Jaffy is deemed a natural with animals and is offered a job with Jamrach, where he befriends the slightly older Tim and his sister Ishbel. When Jaffy is sixteen, he and Tim join Jamrach's best supplier, Dan Rymer, who has been commissioned to capture a dragon-like creature called an Ora. To that end they sail away on a whaler and Jaffy's adventure begins.

A fellow with second sight warns Jaffy and the rest of the whaler's crew that they'll bring on bad luck if they capture the dragon and take it on board the ship. The crew should have listened. Time itself changes with the Ora on board; they enter "dragon time." Their thoughts become muddled; Jaffy says "It was like an earthquake in the landscape in my head, and I no longer knew what I could count on." In light of the warning, it's obvious that disaster will strike; it's just a question of when it will happen and how bad it will be. It's bad.

Carol Birch's vivid writing brings this thrilling story to life. Reading the novel was like watching a movie in high definition -- better than that, really, given the clarity that language provides. Birch's style alternates between graceful and gritty, as the scene demands. Part seafaring adventure, part survival story, part tale of the supernatural, with elements of a morality play and psychological study, Jamrach's Menagerie delivers an exhilarating plot and convincing characters.
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