Carol Birch could have paddled across the Atlantic Ocean in a canoe faster than her award-winning books have come to America. The accomplished British author is already 60 years old and on her 11th novel (!), but we’re just finally getting a look at what she’s been up to. (Please, ma’am, I want some more.) “Jamrach’s Menagerie” is a moving, fantastically exciting sea tale that takes you back to those great 19th-century stories that first convinced you “there is no frigate like a book.”
The story begins in the sewers of London with a cheerful, fatherless boy, Jaffy Brown, searching barefoot for coins in the muck. While he’s running errands, he sees “the Sun himself” strutting down the street: a Bengal tiger escaped from Mr. Jamrach’s exotic-pet store. “He drew me like honey draws a wasp,” Jaffy says. “Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose.” The tiger, of course, has other ideas.
Snatched from its jaws just in time, Jaffy becomes a local hero, and Mr. Jamrach, eager to quell any backlash, offers the boy a job that determines the rest of his legendary life. “The tiger made me,” Jaffy says, looking back. “When my path and his crossed, everything changed. After that, the road took its branching way, willy-nilly, and off I went into the future.”
One of the magical qualities of Birch’s story is that it gives that sense of Dickensian sprawl and scope even though it’s spun in fewer than 300 pages.We smell “the gorgeous stench” of England’s burgeoning capital in the mid-19th century and see its noisy alleys stretching out in every direction. Mr. Jamrach’s menagerie — from toucan to camel — is matched by an equally colorful collection of characters, beginning with the benevolent owner himself, who’s part natural scientist, part circus ringmaster.
Another wonder of this novel is sweet Jaffy’s dynamic voice, which evolves from the wide-eyed enthusiasms of boyhood to the weary melancholy of middle age. In the early pages, everything comes to us teeming with the lush sensory overload of his 8-year-old mind, a riot of impressions and fresh metaphors. One night when his best friend and rival locks him in the pet shop overnight, Jaffy experiences a waking nightmare that prefigures the very real horrors he’ll experience a few years later.
But it’s the novel’s long second part that will keep you up late and make you feel distracted whenever you have to set it down and leave Jaffy’s world behind. The adventure begins when Mr. Jamrach receives a commission to procure a “dragon,” which a sailor may have described to another sailor who may have mentioned it to another sailor somewhere east of the Java Sea. That’s not a report that inspires much confidence, but Mr. Jamrach runs a customer-oriented store, and so he collects a band of trusty animal catchers, including 15-year-old Jaffy, and gets them passage on a whaling ship.
“It’s not a real dragon,” Jaffy keeps saying nervously. “It hasn’t got wings.” But he’s out-of-his-skin excited to hunt for a creature still smoldering with myth. “We were all of us wild, great thumping fools,” he recalls, “with thumping hearts running about that first morning, making a pig’s ear of whatever we turned our hands to. We know nothing, nothing at all.” He knows he’s where he was always meant to be, though, and he takes to the sea like a fish. “It seemed to me for one moment that unhappiness was a nonsense.”
How quickly that glee evaporates.
Birch finds inspiration from the same tale that captured Herman Melville’s imagination: the horrific story of the Essex. That doomed vessel left Nantucket in 1819 but was sunk just a few months later by an angry sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. The survivors of the Essex, you’ll recall from fiction or history, quickly found themselves delivered to the slower but more gruesome horrors of starvation and cannibalism.
Although “Moby-Dick” and “Jamrach’s Menagerie” are very different novels, Birch holds her own with breathtaking descriptions of the harpooners in action, the gory rendering of the world’s largest mammals and timber-splitting storms that crash down on the ship like giant ax blades. Even her monitor lizard seems capable of carrying the mantle of that deadly white whale. After all, a whale makes a great canvas on which Melville can project all his philosophical and theological concerns, but for bloodcurdling mayhem, nothing beats a riled-up Komodo dragon.
And frankly, Ishmael never had to confront the suffering that’s waiting for poor Jaffy. While Melville wraps up his epic a few paragraphs after Moby-Dick’s fatal strike, Birch pursues her tenderhearted hero into the madness that lies beyond mere survival. It’s a harrowing voyage that subjects the young man — and us — to ghastly deprivations and unimaginable choices, “stuck between a mad God and merciless nature.” For a new salty adventure across the watery part of the world, you won’t find a better passage than “Jamrach’s Menagerie.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Carol Birch
Doubleday. 295 pp. $25.95