Whatever their other merits may be, literary fiction prizes do a great service to adventurous readers by introducing us to authors we might not have otherwise heard of. That was the case with my discovery of Carol Birch’s novel Jamrach’s Menegarie, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. (The winner was The Sense of an Ending by frequent nominee Julian Barnes. A fine book, but Carol was robbed.)
Jamrach’s Menagerie begins in 19th century England with an 8-year-old boy named Jaffy, who survives an encounter with an escaped tiger and then begins working for Charles Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals (and a true historical figure). A few years later, Jaffy and his best friend Tim join a whaling expedition with the hopes of capturing an elusive dragon for the menagerie. How does it end? Rather than risk spoiling any surprises, I’ll agree wholeheartedly with this review: “Jamrach’s Menagerie just gets better and better as it builds toward a powerful, unforgettable crescendo…”
Equal parts adventure story, historical fiction, and coming-of-age tale, Jamrach’s Menagerie has been compared to works of Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, as well as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. It’s a book that will stick with you.
Steve Kight, Assistant Director for Public Services