Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I’d read one of Carol Birch’s earlier novels years before Jamrach’s Menagerie was published and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t particularly inclined to read more but I have a weakness for novels with a circus or carnival theme – Nights at the Circus, Carter Beats the Devil, Dreamland, Tipping the Velvet to name but a few – so this one snagged my attention with its dramatic rescue of eight-year-old Jaffy from a tiger’s jaws by menagerie owner, Charles Jamrach.

Stricken at what could so nearly have been a tragedy, Jamrach offers Jaffy a job cleaning out the animals’ cages which the boy happily accepts, becoming friends with Tim Liniver and falling in love with Tim’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy is sent with Tim to the Dutch East Indies aboard a whaling ship to capture a ‘dragon’ for the menagerie. The intrepid pair is successful but when the ‘dragon’ bites one of the crew it’s thrown overboard. The ship is later sunk – struck by a whale – leaving just twelve of the crew alive and stranded in two boats. As the twelve begin to die of thirst and starvation, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. Eventually straws are drawn to decide who will be killed and devoured next. When land is struck, only two are left alive – half-mad with horror and grief.

Birch is a rip-roaring storyteller and this is quite a tale to tell. It’s packed full of vivid description, memorable characters and adventure. I remember racing through this novel one holiday, completely lost in it. Sadly, last year’s Orphans of the Carnival failed to match it for me.

Jaffy’s dramatic rescue is based on an incident in the nineteenth-century East End, now commemorated with a statue in Wapping, when an eight-year-old was indeed rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger owned by a Charles Jamrach who ran a menagerie. Sadly the latter part of the book is also based in fact – the dreadful fate of the whaler, Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in 1820.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

You can find more posts like this here.

10 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)”

  1. Loved Jarmach’s Menagerie too! Really stays with you. Felt disappointed in The Orphans of the Carnival too – but I also loved her book “Little Sister” – a contemporary novel though, not historical.

    1. It was the twentieth-century thread that failed to work for me in Orphans of the Carnival. Such a shame – Julia’s story was fascinating and she was so sensitively portrayed. Thanks for the Little Sister tip. I’ll check it out.

  2. I loved In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, which also tells the tale of the Essex whaling ship. Is Jaffy on the ship in this novel?

    1. I’d forgotten the Philbrick. Thanks for reminding me, Naomi. He is on board ship but I think that part of the book is only loosely based on the Essex; I suspect she’s conflated two historical incidents.

  3. Oh, this was such a riveting read. It really impressed me at the time. But even then I remember having reservations about recommending it because it was so visceral. (Not that it was the kind you don’t want to recommend, but the kind you do recommend to readers you’re sure won’t hate you for it later!) On a water theme, I’m reminded of my enthuasiam for Michael Crummey’s Galore (there are waves on the cover of that one too), which I absoltuely loved and pressed upon people endlessly that year. I like the idea of revisiitng old faves like this!

    1. Funny you should say that – someone told me on Twitter that she’d actually fainted on a train journey after reading one of the more grisly passages which left me feeling a little guilty. I recommended River Thieves in this series a few months back, my favourite Crummey.

    1. Ah, I stuck with it for Julia’s story which I loved but was left feeling puzzled as to why that thread was there at all.

  4. I love circus or carnival themed books, I’m not sure why but there’s a real appeal. Perhaps it’s just that it allows a collection of oddball outcasts to come together (I loathe circuses in real life). I remember this book coming out and wanting to read it, but as it often the case it didn’t make it into my reading schedule. I’m still tempted, especially with a return recommendation from you. Maybe before I’m 64!

    1. I’ve only been to one circus which I absolutely loved but there were no animals whatsoever involved. It was Archaos who more than lived up to their name. I hope you do get around to this one, Belinda, although it’ll be hard to read it slowly!

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