Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch

6 May 2012
Part 1
The first-person narrator of all this is Jaffy Brown, and Carol Birch has him use the three chapters of Part 1 to tell us about the memorable bits of his childhood. This section isn’t long, but he’s already been born twice. Once is to the cheerful, feckless mother who can never quite put her finger on exactly who his father might be, although Jaffy has the dark curls and looks of a ‘Lascar’. His early childhood is like something out of one of Dickens’ river novels, probably Our Mutual Friend, except Carol Birch has Jaffy leave in the bits that Dickens seems to have left out. We get the hyper-reality of childhood sensations, mediated by the adult narrator looking back. And most of the sensations are horrible: gnawing hunger and the smell of the Bermondsey shore which, in his presentation of it, is the smell of shit. It’s only after they move away to a community based on the Watney Street high road – chased there by the violent seaman who sometimes shares his mother’s bed – that he realises that not all the world smells that way. Some of this strikes me as Horrible Histories territory, in which a 21st Century author over-eggs the mix in a way that contemporary writers wouldn’t have dreamt of.

We’re still in Chapter 1 when he is born for the second time, aged eight. How was he supposed to know that the huge, vividly-coloured cat – doesn’t Birch just love vivid? – is in fact an escaped tiger and not to be stroked on the nose? It cuffs him and carries him off in its jaws, until a man with an indefinable accent rescues him. This turns out to be Jamrach and, more terrified than Jaffy, he offers the boy’s mother enough money to placate her, which doesn’t need to be much, and next day he offers him a raspberry puff and a job. Jaffy hears his own story from Tim, the boy who brings him to the headquarters of the animal-importing business that is the menagerie: there was nothing left of him but his head on the ground and a few chewed-up bones… and we know that in this tale we’re going to have to be careful about how much we believe.

Take the tiger incident. Sure, it’s dramatic enough, and the boy’s life is different afterwards…. But a re-birth? We know that the adult narrator has been to sea, and he enjoys carefully honing his stories as much as Carol Birch obviously does. The time when Tim locks him in the menagerie overnight becomes a lurid, gothic fantasy of breathing shadows and looming jaws. The day, three years later, when he is able to spend time alone with Tim’s sister Ishbel becomes his first taste of what he doesn’t recognise as love. At the end of Chapter 3 the child doesn’t know why he is crying in his room, alone, but the narrator does, and makes sure we do too.

What is really going on after Jaffy’s re-birth is the search for an emotional core that he’s never experienced. He had been close enough to his mother in the Bermondsey days to share her bed – but only until the sailor used to come along for the night and displace him. He realises after the lock-in incident that as Jamrach leads him home, he holds his hand in a way that no father ever has. And Tim and Ishbel, who are twins, have a closeness he can’t penetrate however hard he tries. He’ll never be their brother even if he can sometimes pretend. And anyway, their family life is as problematic as his own: the father is a brain-damaged wreck following an accident at sea, and while Tim earns pennies at the menagerie Ishbel has to dress older than her twelve years to sing in a pub. Carol Birch is making some serious points about working people’s lives in the 1850s.

But Part 1 doesn’t end with that. As Jaffy scans the town with the telescope Tim has been made to give him for locking him up all those years ago, the narrator remarks that ‘sometimes a thing comes so close it makes you jump.’ And, as though he has been preparing for what follows – he has – he tells us: ‘It’s the same when you look at the past.’ This isn’t only going to be a retrospective, but a contemplation of the workings of memory. Ah.

9 May
Part 2, Chapters 4-8
I’ve stopped because… because I’m not massively thrilled. All through Part 1 I was thinking how well Carol Birch does mise-en-scene, and I was looking forward to the picaresque travellers’ tales it was going to lead to. Half-way through Part 2 – which is also half-way through the novel – I’m still waiting. We’re still getting mise-en-scene in spades – I remember an exotic tree being described as something like a halted green explosion – but… it turns out that the way the islands look is more interesting than whatever happens there. It isn’t picaresque, it’s merely episodic – and how can a professional writer make a dragon-hunt seem so, well, ordinary? This book comes laden with praise for Carol Birch’s skills as a writer, and while her descriptive writing is impressive, there are a lot more adjectives than verbs: we’re getting scenery, including a whole lot of psychic scenery, but not a lot of action.

Am I being unfair? Am I expecting something from this novel that Carol Birch never promised to give us? A different interest was clear from the start: the inter-weaving of story and memory, which she definitely works with in Part 2. The opening of Chapter 7, for instance, is told in such a way that we think we’re getting the grown-up Jaffy, now back on the Ratcliffe Highway in London, vividly remembering an incident from the voyage as he can hear, apparently now, the voice of one shipmate telling another not to frighten the boys with his stories. But soon we’re not so sure, as he really can hear that voice, and that other reality recedes as he wakes up, on board ship, from one of his vivid dreams of home. Later ‘Skip’, who is sure he can see things others can’t, tries to persuade Jaffy that the things he imagines are just as valid as what everybody else thinks of as reality. Having caught and caged their dragon – tell you later – the crew become convinced that it is bringing them bad luck. Sailors are notoriously superstitious, and the line between their beliefs and the often delusional Skip is becoming blurred.

Maybe this accounts for why so much of the novel takes place inside the characters’ minds rather than outside in the world. There’s Jaffy with his high-definition dreams and, as the adult narrator, his musings on memory. There’s Skip, not only imagining a god pursuing them in the form of a single, winged eye but able to imagine what it must be like for the captured ‘dragon’, taking his shipmates with him inside its consciousness as the sky falls in on its island existence and it finds itself in what, for all it knows, is a circle of hell. And always there are stories: the life-histories of the crew, the tales of unaccountable sinkings and islands where the natives will eat a man as readily as an Englishman will eat a chicken, to say nothing of the versions of reality that Skip comes up with – including, unexpectedly, his ability to make instantly recognisable drawings of landscapes and crew members.

I might be making it sound more interesting than I’m finding it. Just because a writer sets herself a potentially interesting agenda, an interesting novel doesn’t necessarily come out of it. I don’t feel that Carol Birch is taking me to places I haven’t been taken to before with these ideas, or in her treatment of exotic cultures being messed up by contact with white men. Her islanders seem surprisingly unaffected and, so far, her version of the imperialist project seems like small beer.

I suppose that my problem is it all seems like small beer. By locating so much of the narrative inside her characters’ heads, there’s not a great deal of interaction between them, and almost no drama. Take the plot of Part 2, so far. Three years have passed since the end of Part 1, and Tim gets the chance to sail away on a hunting expedition with Dan Rymer, the man who brings Jamrach his most exotic finds. Jaffy is momentarily jealous, then joins the same ship. End of crisis. It’s a whaling ship, and they are both a bit scared of the idea – until they successfully hunt down the first whale. Cue signature Carol Birch-style precision descriptions of the hunt, of the size of the whale in the water, of its strangely placed eyes, of the kill. End of crisis. They are going to the island where there have supposedly been sightings of a dragon – cue imaginings of ‘fairy-tale’ dragons and the monster fought by St George – which turns out to be an ugly, cruel-jawed giant lizard. It’s hard to catch one, but not that hard. It becomes Jaffy’s job to look after it on board ship. He nurses it through its shock, is the hero, but then the bad luck kicks in.

And that’s it. What is missing is any drama to do with the human interactions on board ship. The captain is mild and ineffectual, the first mate is strict, there is an old black crew member and a blond Scandinavian… and so on. But there’s no development as they sail thousands of miles, no dramatic crises arising from the differing personality types. It’s like the mise-en-scene problem all over again: Birch has assembled her dramatis personae and left them standing about with very little to do. Now, at the end of Chapter 8, I’m hoping the run of bad luck will lead to something interesting, but I have my doubts.

12 May
Chapter 9 to part-way through Chapter 13
I’m not at the end of Part 2 yet. Jaffy and Tim and Dan are still at sea, but there’s a gruesome countdown of how many remain alive. We’re down to eight, with another one not long for this world… because, reader, as soon as I picked up the book again hoping for something interesting, along came a run of events. Two events, in fact: the psychotically delusional Skip lets the dragon out of its cage ‘for a walk’ – cue chaotic scene before the crew fail to cage it again and have to hustle it overboard – and then three waterspouts approach. Two miss them, just, but the third sinks the ship – and Carol Birch seems to decide that we’ve had enough of events: for the last three (or four?) chapters the two little boats, with twelve men aboard and hastily made up sails, have been heading east to where they hope to find land or passing whaling ships. So far: neither.

Before one of the crew members dies soon after reaching one of the boats there are briefly thirteen alive… but I’m not sure whether that’s a significant number. There are other possible Last Supper references: after solemnly giving three of the dead a sea burial an unspoken decision is made to eat the next. They drink the blood and eat the body. Before this, other things happen, or are said, that strike a glancing blow at some aspect of philosophy. Early in the long drift towards South America Jaffy and Tim muse about whether they might have passed into a parallel world in which there is nothing at all except an infinity of ocean. (I’m paraphrasing.) Dan, ever the one to encourage hope in the ones he now routinely refers to as ‘my boys’, insists that ‘I breathe therefore I am.’ In this universe, in which human pretensions have shrunk almost to nothing, there’s no need to think in order to exist.

This is the trajectory of these chapters. One of the most God-fearing of the crew pronounces that there can be no God. He, or somebody else, says that their plight is all God’s fault. And Birch takes great care to take us through the stages of their physical degradation – I’ll spare you the details – with each death seeming worse than the last. That first one, caused by exhaustion and near-drowning, is a quiet affair. The most recent has been a horror that the adult Jaffy tells us has stayed with him all his life, with blood gushing from every orifice in the dying man’s face. Some earlier things reminded me of Lord of the Flies – Tim’s war-paint and feathers after his hunt, the gorging on pig-meat, Skip’s Simon-like visions of the horror within – but now we’re definitely in King Lear territory. I can’t remember which character first notices that they are all animals now – it doesn’t seem to matter, somehow – but there they are. They aren’t ready to kill each other to eat, yet – they don’t need to – but a lot of them have started to blame Skip for the bad luck they’ve had, and are ready to throw him overboard. Dan has to threaten to shoot anyone who tries, and it’s only this that stirs the captain to assert some authority on the matter. Bare, forked animals? You bet.

So, what is this, a meditation on the human condition? If so, does it work? If not, what is it? It’s a novel, that’s what it is, and it’s still not quite working for me. For some reason – and this doesn’t always happen with historical novels – I’m constantly aware of the author, setting herself ‘What if?’-style challenges and painstakingly imagining for us how things would unfold. If the criterion for judging it is to do with how convincing her portrayal is, she almost always succeeds. If you were a 15-year-old, good with animals, involved in efforts to get a monstrous reptile back in a cage on board a ship that was already old-fashioned by the middle of the 19th Century, wouldn’t it be as terrifying as this? And if you looked into its eyes as it contemplated attacking you, wouldn’t its eyes be as cold and soulless as that? It feels perfectly possible.

So, job done, and I should stop complaining? First we’re aboard the ship, then on some islands, and now on one of two little boats in the middle of a vast ocean – and it really might well be as horrifying as this. We’re used to Birch’s version of hyper-reality by now, with assaults on every sense as the crew-members begin to look and stink like rotting corpses even before they die. In adversity, Dan really might behave like this, becoming more fatherly, Jaffy and Tim might well become more like brothers as they do here – they often comfort one another by holding hands – and Jaffy probably would be persecuted by alluring memories of home. Ishbel becomes more important in his imagination as his mother somehow becomes less – and, as time goes on, neither of them comes close to his memories of food on the Ratcliffe Highway and fantasies of banquets. Yes, I suppose it would be like this.

But, well, so?

13 May
To the end of Part 2…
…i.e. the rest of Chapter 13, plus Chapter 14. A couple of pages beyond where I’d stopped last time, Dan quotes Jesus’ lines at the Last Supper: ‘This is my blood….’ No surprise there, then – and from now on Carol Birch decides to take her characters down as far as they can go. There are more deaths, including that of Gabriel, the former believer, who stops eating and drinking. So the others don’t starve, yet. And then they do, because the boats become separated and nobody’s dying of the four who are left on Jaffy’s.

With him are Tim, Dan and the ever more delusional Skip, who tells them of the monstrous hoofed being striding beside them and, later, of the spectral ship with an eye on every spar. In his mind there’s always someone looking, always someone who knows the guilt he feels. (It’s part of what I consider Birch’s failure, if that’s not too strong a word, that we never feel moved by his distress. From Jaffy’s point of view he is presented as little more than a nuisance.) Jaffy has described his own altered states during the novel, from his experience in the night-time menagerie to the first time he got drunk in the Azores, but now they reach a level of baroque weirdness as he begins to see what Skip sees. As before, I’m thinking that yes, it probably would be like that. After they’ve started to eat Tim – and you don’t know the worst of it yet – he has an out-of-body experience that is no surprise at all. It’s another ‘What if…?’ moment, and I should stop complaining about them.

It’s Tim who suggests that they draw lots, seeking a desperate kind of comfort in the idea of precedent, that this is what sailors always do in this situation. Birch gives us a neat sign of the end of something valuable as they tear into squares the last of Skip’s skilful drawings. It’s the first one Jaffy had seen, of that first island. And some potentially interesting questions arise in the reader’s mind – this reader’s mind, anyway – about the father/sons relationships: will one of them have to kill Dan? Will he kill one of them?

It turns out to be worse, another horror to be placed alongside all the others that Jaffy tells us he will never forget: after Tim has drawn the marked square that tells him he’s to be the next meal, Jaffy draws the one that tells him he will be the executioner. Ah. He doesn’t heed Dan’s warning not to look as he fires the gun – he doesn’t want to get it wrong for the boy who confirms before he dies that Jaffy is his best friend – and he looks as Dan cuts up the body. Still clothed, now without a head, it is still Tim. But unclothed and butchered it becomes meat, like all the others – except he recognises moles and scars…. Carol Birch, milking it? You decide.

And then, after the death and consumption of Skip, the remaining two – Jaffy and the man who has come closer than anyone else to being a father – are rescued. Five chapters it’s taken, and I still feel annoyed. I didn’t know I was reading a cannibalism novel, and I wouldn’t have started reading it if I’d known. Would the experience have been as Birch describes it? Possibly. Have I ever thought about these things before? Yes. Has she added to my sum of knowledge? No. The end.

15 May
Part 3 – to the end
Jaffy is back in London, and I can’t help imagining Carol Birch’s tick-list of what someone in this situation would probably go through. Seek comfort with a prostitute? Tick. Find contact with her almost unbearably upsetting? Tick. Worry endlessly about how people would regard him, his terrible story having reached London before him? Tick. And so on. All day he puts off seeing his mother. He puts off seeing Ishbel and her mother even longer: wouldn’t they be constantly thinking about what he did to Tim? After that particular meeting, which is nothing like as bad as he fears despite the mother slapping him in her furious grief, he goes to ground. Or, rather, he suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that mostly confines him to his bed for eight months. Nobody on the Ratcliffe Highway judges him, and after Dan visits he finally emerges. In a pub, a young pot-boy asks him about what it was like – he’s talking about eating human flesh – and he tells him. It all feels perfectly plausible, and it isn’t hugely interesting.

Where can a novelist go? We know he survives, because he’s telling us the story some years later. So Birch has him drift for a while, occasionally and unsettlingly bumping into Ishbel, the only girl he’s ever loved but who is now engaged to someone else. Can he work at Jamrach’s? No. Work on the fish-stall with his mother’s new bloke, the father of a little brother he’s met on his return home? No. Go back to sea on short-haul voyages? Why not? Luckily, on the voyages and on his frequent returns to London, he discovers ‘aptitudes’: he’s a bit of reader, rather good at drawing birds, rather good at making the kinds of big exotic bird-cages that he’s seen on his travels, the ones that give birds the freedom to fly a little. And he has both enough money – including a reward from the man who commissioned the dragon-hunt – and enough business sense to open a little warehouse-cum-shop. It becomes a fashionable haven of tranquillity where Jaffy can, well, be tranquil.

Are you believing any of this? Are you surprised that Ishbel never does marry the other man, and is ready to move in and marry Jaffy as soon as he’s ready to accept that she doesn’t hate him? (Birch keeps quiet about how many years it’s taken for Jaffy to set himself up like this.) Are you drawing any meaningful conclusions about what Birch might be telling us about caged and uncaged spirits, as Jaffy finally gives up the sea to please Ishbel, but never stops thinking about its allure?

I suppose Carol Birch knew where she was going to take this novel when she started writing it – I can’t see her just, well, letting it write itself. I guess the apparent purposelessness of the voyage, the dead ends and ultimate return to the beginning were all part of a plan. I might be wrong, and maybe she hadn’t really foreseen that something like a third of it would consist entirely of a shipwreck and its grisly aftermath. Maybe the titular Jamrach was originally going to make more than the occasional cameo appearance once Jaffy gets to sea – unless the human zoo we’ve had to study in Part 2 is the real menagerie of the title.

Either way, it never really works for me.

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