I just finished the book Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch. As a zoo director, a history buff, and a lover of all things English – you would think I would be drawn into a story about exotic animals that is set in 1850’s England. Actually I was prepared to be disappointed, since I am a bit of a cynic. I have written my own animal novel and I have discovered that the nuances of animal care and the ability to make accurate observations of animal behavior do not come easily. While, I must admit, it took me a while to be fully hooked on Jamrach’s Menagerie I did get well and truly hooked. This is, I believe a remarkable piece of writing.
I was enthralled with the spot-on descriptions of the impressive and diverse collection of animals in Mr. Jamrach the animal dealer’s shop, where young Jaffy Brown “grew light of mind from the gorgeous stench”. Who but an animal person would recognize that stench could be gorgeous?
Later, at sea, as Jaffy watched a recently harpooned whale die, he declared, “It was then I truly realized a whale is no more a fish than I am.” “So much strength dies slowly. We watched in awe, wordless. Ten minutes, fifteen, more. As she thrashed, she swam around in an ever dwindling gyre, and I begged her to die”.
And finally, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Jaffy’s observations of a recently captured Komodo dragon:
“His piggy little eyes watched me suspiciously, and not a movement more I got for the rest of the day.”
“Those eyes were no more stupid than a rock is stupid. In the worst throes if its madness, those ancient eyes had remained fixed as stars, brightly aware, receiving what befell with the clarity of a sage. All life and death the same, the same pain and feeding and fighting and dying. All of that was in the depths of the creature’s eyes. All that and all the wildness of his life. No, he was not stupid.” How do you write that unless you have spent time looking into the soul of a Komodo dragon?
At times lyrical and poetic and at times disturbing and evening repulsive, this is one of the few books on the list of those I wish to read again someday.