Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

Purchased at AbeBooks.com

I think I have finally discovered my problem with this year’s Booker longlist: 10 of the 13 novels are narrated in a first-person voice. Now the first person is not a totally impossible point of view (Proust and Camus certainly come to mind as exceptional successes), but it is a difficult one to carry off. Indeed, a couple on this year’s list (Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — review to come soon) either succeed or come very close. But go to your shelf of personal all-time favorites and look at how few are written in the first person (War and Peace and Ulysses would have been impossible, Austen, James and Wharton all found the third-person more than acceptable for their deservedly-famous works). So I think I have found my 2011 Booker problem: especially for one who does not like memoirs or autobiographies (that would be me), even when a first-person novel comes close to success, it fails. By definition, the point of view is restricted — rather than being impressive because of what is told, the novel becomes a story of what is missing (again, a characteristic that can succeed — see Barnes — but carries with it an enormous risk). In the hands of the inexperienced or middle-talented, that can produce a reading adventure that is incomplete and unsatisfying at best (another apt summary of too much of my Booker reading this year).

All of which is an introduction to yet another Booker longlist novel told in the first person (and reviews are pending on three more). Author Carol Birch introduces Jaffy Brown:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

The young Jaf’ found his head in the tiger’s mouth purely through curiosity — Jamrach, the menagerie owner, was leading the animal down the street to his warehouse and the seven-year-old boy strode up to stroke the tiger’s nose. Jamrach saved Jaf’s life and delivered him home. For Jaffy Brown, that leads to eventual employment as a yard boy in Jamrach’s menagerie and it is his experience there that will set him onto the adventure that occupies most of the book.

I’ve characterized this novel as representing the genre of “animals as metaphor” (consider Animal Farm as the model) elsewhere and some have disputed that — I continue to believe this is very much an “animals as metaphor” book (starting with that tiger). If you read and loved Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi, stay tuned because this is about to become even more of your kind of book.

While the opening section takes place in the slummy London menagerie with its creatures ranging from small birds in tiny cages, to bigger birds, to monkeys, to tigers, to elephants, the “real” Jamrach’s Menagerie begins when Mr Fledge commissions Dan Rymer (both friends of Jamrach) to undertake the capture of a “dragon” in the South Pacific to add to his collection:

‘A dragon of sorts.’ Dan doodled on a scrap of paper. ‘If it exists. Certainly the natives believe it does. The Ora. There have always been rumors. I talked to a man on Sumba once who said his grandfather had been eaten by one. And there was a whaleman once, an islander. He had a tale. There are lots of tales.’ He showed me what he’d drawn. It looked like a crocodile with long legs.

‘It’s not a dragon if it hasn’t got wings,’ I said, ‘not a real dragon.’

Jaf’s best friend, Tim, is signed on to the project as Rymer’s assistant in capturing the dragon. Jaf’, who is far better with animals than Tim, quietly slips off to the dock and signs up as a rookie sailor on the crew of the whaler Lysander whose captain has agreed to divert it for a few weeks to search for the dragon.

(Spoilers coming up, but they are totally predictable in the book itself.) After lengthy, not very good, passages, about life on a whaling ship including the killing and butchering of a whale and recovery of its oil, the “dragon” is found and captured. Massive problems ensue (not all the dragon’s fault, but it is the symbolic cause — this is an animal as metaphor novel, after all), the Lysander sinks in a very unrealistic storm and 12 crew, including Jaf’, Tim and Rymer escape into empty seas in two whale-hunting skiffs for a seemingly endless attempt at survival (given that he is telling the story, Jaf’ obviously does, which tends to make the drama even more disappointing). Cue Life of Pi again, but at much greater length.

Novelist Birch falls victim to two of the entirely predictable problems of first person novels as this unfolds (a fate she shares with a number of her longlist colleagues). The first, and perhaps most common, is a reliance on “dream” to expand the narrative. I confess to a general aversion for “dreams” in novels — it is an all too convenient way for the author to head into another world to deal with problems that cannot be addressed in the principal narrative. I was less than a third of the way through this novel when the continuing escape to dreams began to annoy me; from then on it seemed the author ventured off to dreamland every two or three pages. Certainly, when the skiffs were drifting, it was a form of dementia — from a writing point of view, it was still a lazy device.

Also, when a book is not succeeding, some otherwise minor authorly flaws start to expand like rapidly-growing, bad-tasting fungi. In Birch’s case, this came in the form of filling up the text with useless adjectives. Read the following passage with special attention to the many adjectives, then go back and ask yourself how many actually added to the picture (which, after all, is what the well-chosen adjective is supposed to do):

We rowed in through house-high rocks covered in barbarous plants like halted green explosions. A river ran down from a high forested ravine, skirting one edge of a sheltered beach, horseshoe-shaped, fringed with creamy-blossomed trees and split about the other edge by a long spur of dark pink rock. Beyond, upland and inland, tier on tier, slender shock-headed palms leaned elegantly one way, as if about to pull themselves up from the earth and set off on some sweeping migration. On either side of the bay, tall crags rose up.

Those with an affinity for sea novels, a deep affection for Life of Pi or a fascination with “animals as metaphor” may well find something in this Victorian historical novel — I know from reviews and opinions elsewhere that a number of people did. I know that I didn’t and that my frustration led to even more dismay with aspects of Birch’s writing. In a year where the Booker longlist has many disappointments, Jamrach’s Menagerie is going to be somewhere in the bottom third of my ranking.

(I appreciate that my distaste for memoir/autobiography may have influenced my response not just to this novel but also my disappointment with so many on the longlist. I have no theory about why this jury finds the first-person voice so persuasive given that it is not commonly used to great effect and far more often produces disappointing results. If you have thoughts, by all means leave them in the comments now — I intend to return to the issue in a week or so when I post my shortlist thoughts and we can join that debate then.)

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29 Responses to “Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I started this one too and just wasn’t in the mood. That I can recall, I haven’t abandoned any other books this year other than this and The Stranger’s Child. I’m sure some of it is due to my own creeping disappointment with the Booker Prize in the past few years (though I did like last year — only read the few I was interested in). I’m not sure I’ll get back into it this year except to read the Barnes, which I would have read anyway. Maybe the Barry, too, but I’m not so certain there since I didn’t particularly like The Secret Scripture. Will’s review today suggests I’ll be annoyed at the new one too.

    The sad thing is that starting and stopping two books in such a short time has delayed other reading. I’m hoping to build up some energy elsewhere soon, and I can say that I’m really excited about the Giller, a list I’ve enjoyed much more than the Booker over the past few years.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Trevor: I was certainly tempted to abandon it, but Birch does keep the prose going at least. I think David’s comment later on is worth noting — this is not the kind of book I would have even attempted were it not for my Booker efforts, so I shouldn’t be too harsh in the judgment. I do wonder whose interests they think they are serving, however — the novels are not just not to my taste, they are not even good examples of their type. It seems to me that throwing them on to a prize list doesn’t do anybody any favor.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    You know Kevin, a lot of these nominees sound mediocre. I don’t think it’s just you or your preferences.

  3. David Says:

    I enjoyed this one. The London parts I found really engrossing but once Birch got us under sail it did start to drag a bit, though sometimes the slackening of pace worked to good effect (I really felt like I was adrift for weeks on end in one of those lifeboats!). The first person narration didn’t/doesn’t bother me and quite a few of my favourite novels are told in the first person.
    I’m actually glad I read this earlier in the year before the Booker label got attached to it. Reading it now I’d probably be judging it by different criteria whereas I was able to enjoy it just as a romping adventure tale. Birch is an author I like a lot but her books, though hugely enjoyable, never strike me as having the layers that I expect in a literary prize novel. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’, ‘Scapegallows’ and ‘The Naming of Eliza Quinn’ are all historical adventures full of drama, romance and big characters but I don’t think there’s an awful lot more to them than that – they don’t bear a great deal of analysis. ‘Turn Again Home’ is for me still her best book and one that perhaps seemed a more comfortable fit with the Booker (it was longlisted in 2003).

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      David: You are probably better qualified than I to comment on the worth of this one — I’m not much into adventure tales and even less into seafaring ones. (SPOILER) I probably did get more involved (although in a negative way) in the lifeboat section — I couldn’t believe she was stringing it out for as long as she did when there was absolutely no surprise to anything that happened. When the dragons were eating each other earlier in the book, it was pretty obvious where the humans would be ending up (you might guess that I am not too keen on animal metaphor books).

  4. Sweet Fanny Adams Says:

    I agree with you on this one, Kevin. Using my ‘life’s too short’ ruler, I chucked it less that a third the way through.

  5. anokatony Says:

    I had high expectations for ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ just based on the title alone. Somehow it just sounded more interesting than ‘A Cupboard Full of Coats’. Still might read it.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, for what it’s worth, the menagerie parts were better for me than the at sea parts. As for the Byatt recommendation, I’d say A.S. likes the mythic metaphor parts of it — alas, that’s where I parted company with A.S.’s work. I quite like her early books but since Possession she has headed downhill for me.

  6. anokatony Says:

    Also Jamrach’s Menagerie got a very positive blurb from A.S. Byatt

  7. leroyhunter Says:

    “Those with….a deep affection for Life of Pi”
    Hmmm. A distinctly double-edged reader category….

    I think Guy is right: it’s not you Kevin, it’s them. I’m reading the reviews and summaries of the longlist with, in some cases, frank incredulity. If this is the direction the Booker is taking then my already scant interest in the prize will disappear.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: You infer correctly — I was not a great fan of Life of Pi either. And I cannot figure out what this jury was thinking. I could understand a list of rollicking, readable books — the lesser half of this list (there are some good books on it) don’t even approach being that.

  9. RickP Says:

    Interesting thoughts all around.

    I liked it more than you did, Kevin. I’m 5 books in and this would rank fourth. I thought it was an interesting, varied book. The sea piece dragged on. I looked for similarities to Life of Pi but found the connection to be superficial.

    I liked this more when I read it than I do in retrospect. I have not thought much about it at all since I read it and it has faded for me.

    One of Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules of writing is “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first person voice offers itself irresistibly.”. I think that’s a good rule and Jaffy Brown does not qualify as such a voice.

    I thought it was okay. I wouldn’t shortlist but it might make it.

    Thus far, the Barnes and the Barry are definite shortlist picks for me. Sisters Brothers is a likely pick more in an affectionate sort
    of way. It’s a bit like I felt about Skippy Dies last year. This book is likely not on my list though I did like it. Snowdrops is out.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    RickP: Thanks for the interesting thoughts. I’ll repeat something I have said elsewhere before: When I am reading a novel, the “tree in the forest” starts to tilt (favorably or unfavorably) and it is often difficult for the author to overcome that tilt. This one started to tilt badly early on and I am afraid it just got worse as the book went on.

    I know you follow the Giller as well. I’ve just finished reading an ARC of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (which is out in a few days) which is another “sea” novel. It was Booker eligible and did not make the longlist — it is not my favorite book of the year, but better than a number on the Booker list and much better than this one for me. It too is a first person book — the review should be up in about 10 days.

  11. Mrs.B Says:

    I gave up on this after I was about 20% in (according to my Kindle). It didnt grab me at all and yes the main character was not that interesting to merit a first person narrative. What is it with this year’s Bookers anyway? On further reflection The Sense of an Ending isnt a great book but it will probably win given its competition.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B: I am a little surprised that quite a few readers have abandoned this book — I suspect that, like me, they are people who never have tried the book were it not for the Booker listing. Which does not make it a better book by any means. As for The Sense of an Ending, Mrs. KfC read it (twice) this week while we were up at Lake Louise — it is certainly my favorite so far and I am starting to think it might actually be a great book, not just a very good one.

  13. Trish Says:

    I abandoned this one as well. I really wasn’t enjoying the heaviness of the writing — it felt too forced — and the prospect of making it all the way to the end did not appeal to me at all. I stuck with Snowdrops because it was a quick read, but I thought it was very mediocre as well.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trish: You make a good point — Snowdrops at least had pace, this one didn’t. Which is a bit strange, given that this is Carol Birch’s eighth book.

  15. Colette Jones Says:

    I abandoned it after a few chapters. There weren’t any problems with the writing; I just wasn’t interested in the story.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Point taken — if the story had been less disappointing, my attention probably would not have been drawn to perceived writing issues. I have to say this novel may rank as the “most abandoned” in recent Booker history — although I suspect The Stars in the Bright Sky would give it a run for that title if people had admitted their frustration. And The Stranger’s Child is giving it a run for the money this year, although far more people who finish that one think it is an excellent book.

  17. Colette Jones Says:

    I do want to read The Stranger’s Child but I’m rarely in the mood to start a long book. I’ve never read any of his.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I can’t remember — did you like The Northern Clemency a few years back? While it is a bit of stretch, there are some comparisons in the way that Hollinghurst looks at periods of British 20th century history. I liked that aspect of the novel but I am afraid his over-writing wore me down.

      • Colette Jones Says:

        Yes, I was in the “love it” camp with The Northern Clemency. I’m going to start The Stranger’s Child shortly so I’ll see where I fall on it soon…

  18. Sazerac Says:

    I soldiered on with ‘Jamrach’ until page 170, and then admitted that life is too short. As RickP says, the voice is just not distinctive enough. Nor, for me, was the sense of time and place very convincing. With regard to distinctive first-person voices, what does anyone think about ‘Half Blood Blues’? I have to say I found it completely engaging, and am hoping it makes the shortlist. I can’t say the same for the Barry. Totally overwritten, and psychologically implausible..

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sazerac: I’d love to be able to say you missed something in the last 150 pages — for me, they were worse unfortunately.

    • Sazerac Says:

      What you said in your review about the adjective overload was spot on. I don’t mind a book being mainly narrative/plot driven if it’s done with some finesse (Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’, for example), but this really was a case of an adjective for every noun and just for the sake of it. (Wait until you get to the similes in ‘On Canaan’s Side’.) I don’t pay any heed to the endorsements from other authors on the front of books, and this one just proved how unhelpful they are. In this case I was left with the distinct feeling that A. S. Byatt needs to get out more . . .

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Dream sequences. Well. Moving on.

    I go this far in your quote:

    “We rowed in through house-high rocks covered in barbarous plants like halted green explosions.”

    For me that was already too much.

    David though has a very real point. As an adventure novel (a genre I do sometimes enjoy) then that sort of thing is fine. As a literary novel not so much. The problem this year is novels that don’t aspire to be literary fiction being held out as such.

    I note that reading this as an adventure novel David enjoyed it. That makes sense, but as he notes the expectations one would have going in would be wholly different. I’d be looking for dangerous escapades, exotic locations, larger than life characters, I’d be less concerned about finely honed sentences and narrative structures.

    So if this weren’t a Booker novel I might buy it and enjoy it just as much as David did. It is though, and it just doesn’t sound like it should be. But then how many of this year’s list do?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I didn’t even rate it as an adventure novel — the 200 pages on the boat when every single incident is predictable is tedium, not adventure. As David says, however, the London parts were interesting and overcame some of the obvious weaknesses in writing.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    200 pages just on the boat?

    That clearly makes it a very long adventure novel. Really, if you’re going to write adventure fiction it should be obligatory to read some Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s not remotely literary, but he does cut to the chase with remarkable efficiency.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My comparison would be Heart of Darkness which weighs in at about half the length and five or six times the impact. The fact that it did come to mind while reading the book did the author of this one no favor — the comparison only emphasized how weak this one is.

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