I judged this book by its cover, and I was wrong. The swirling, stylised art on the bright red cover with silver lettering and detail had stood out to me in the store, so I picked it up and brought it home.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch is a little more miss than hit. It should have been a rolicking adventure, but ended up falling flat. The story is written from the perspective of Jaffy, a young London boy whose life is changed forever when he meets an escaped tiger in the street one day. The story is a fictionalised account of two separate historical events: the rescue of an 8 year old boy from the jaws of a tiger by menagerie-owner Charles Jamrach and the wreck of the Essex, a whaleship sunk by a sperm whale whose survivors drew straws to decide who would be eaten.
Jamrach’s Menagerie reads like a suspension bridge. There are two high points in the plot, and the rest of the story sags around it. The parts where Jaffy had his head in the tiger’s mouth and when he was stuck on the lifeboat with his ever dwindling number of shipmates were the best. However, for the most part it seemed that the writing itself lacked credibility somehow. Maybe it was because a significant portion of the book is set on Rinca Island in Indonesia. As someone who has spent a lot of time living in and writing about that country, and having been to Rinca Island myself specifically to see Komodo Dragons, the book really reads as though she has never been to Indonesia (which I strongly suspect that she hasn’t). The detail she goes into about the characters and landscapes seems to dissipate almost completely as soon as they step off the boat. She neglects to mention some of the more striking and obvious features of the region such as the extreme humidity, the unnavigable jungle, the often knee-deep mud and the rich local culture.
Perhaps it’s just my personal preference, bit I do like to feel as though authors have actually been to the places they write about and have seen the things they describe with their own eyes, and not just through Wikipedia pages and out-of-date textbooks. Take The Windup Girl for instance. While reading that book, no matter that it was set in a dystopian future, I felt like I was there. The author had clearly spent a lot of time doing research on location in Thailand, and the book is so much more vibrant and three-dimensional because of it.
The parts of the novel that weren’t the two plot highlights were rather banal. The characters and their relationships with one another were stilted and uninteresting. Jaffy’s insights as narrator into the characters he meets were usually limited to how “handsome” they were, and Jaffy’s personal insights were negligible at best. It was this shallow character development that left the climax of the book – the situation on the lifeboats – somewhat lacklustre. It was hard to feel connected with the characters. It was not a very long novel, but it was such a slog to read. When it finally did end, the ending was neither satisfying nor intriguing. A disappointing result from such a pretty book.
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