Jaffy, an eight year old boy, encounters an escaped tiger on the Ratcliffe Highway and subsequently becomes employed by Mr Jamrach to look after the animals in his rather exotic per shop. This leads to him going to sea with his best friend Tim and animal hunter Dan Rymer in search of a Dragon from the South China Seas. Adventures and horrors ensue. This last section of the book seems to draw on the real story of the whaling ship Essex as recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.
This was well-written with a real feel for character, dialogue and setting. Jaffy is a lovely character, a dirt-poor Londoner with two jobs at eight years old and not a trace of 'poor me': this is the way life (and death) is and he explains it clearly. The supporting characters are also brilliantly drawn and I particularly loved the way that the ship's crew, more than a dozen, were characterised up to the limit of Jaffy himself knowing them: after one has died Jaffy bemoans the fact that he didn't know him well enough. I adored the careful blend of innocence and knowingness that makes up Jaffy, who is a virgin for most of the book but a pipe smoker from almost page one.
But I was confused by the plot construction. On the one hand I understand that if you are telling someone's life it isn't likely to be a straightforward journey. On the other hand: why was it called 'Jamrach's Menagerie' when that forms a relatively small part of the plot? Is this a metaphor? Are the members of the crew of the ship like the animals captured and confined in Mr Jamrach's pet shop? And is the encounter with the tiger another metaphor, perhaps for the jaws of death? And why the dragon?
And the pace was interesting too. I read quite slowly at first. I was more than half way through before I really wanted to know what happened in the end. And the first part of the book is wide ranging with a lot of incident and different characters and conversations but the last part of the book is much more intense with a lot more soliloquy. I was impressed that the writing was good enough to keep me going in this last bit although it was there that I was reading fast and perhaps missing some of the nuances.
A bit of a rag bag in construction but beautifully written. September 2014; 344 pages
This book was nominated for the 2011 Booker along with Pigeon English but they both lost out to A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57