Jamrach's Menagerie begins with a scene only slightly surreal in its content as our hero Jaffy Brown, aged 8, is nearly carried off by a tiger that is wandering around the streets of London's East End Docklands. I say slightly surreal because in her afterword Carol Birch tells us that the incident actually happened.
Jaffy meets the eccentric Jamrach who imports exotic animals from around the globe and sells them to rich Londoners. Jaffy has a talent for looking after the animals, calming and understanding them. He forms a friendship with a fellow worker, a slightly older boy named Tim. Jamrach gets Tim to join a Whale ship bound to the East Indies in search of Whale Oil. Jaffy too joins the ship to take part in the capture of a giant "dragon" which they know will make their fortunes.
Carol Birch has an easy going style. She brings to life the dirt and poverty of East London, and the terror of a Whaling boat. The story of the ship's disaster and the long voyage on the life boats is expertly painted. The problem is that about half way along I realised I'd read it all before. At one point on the voyage Jaffy and Tim are entertained by some old salt who tells them of the cursed waters where the Whaleship Essex sank.
Jamrach's Menagerie follows that story very closely. In fact most of the key points that happen once Tim and Jaffy's ship is wrecked and they take to the Whalers are taken from the story of the Essex. Birch notes that those wanting to know more about that story should read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. Frankly I found myself drifting along with our shipwrecked heroes and lost interest in the story.
This is a shame because Birch has excellent writing talents and does well to bring the story to life, but because In the Heart of the Sea did such a good job of telling the amazing story of the crew of the Essex, I couldn't enjoy this re-telling. I'd encourage those interested to read the historical book, rather than this dramatisation. Given that history involved cannibalism, heroism and amazing sailing skills, in this case history is better than art.
PhilBrick - In the Heart of the Sea