Archive for the ‘Birch, Carol’ Category

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

August 25, 2011

Purchased at

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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