Carol Birch’s “Jamrach’s Menagerie” is a story about survival. Initially based in Victorian London it captures the economic survival of the working poor. Predominantly, it details survival of a whaling crew lost at sea after the destruction of their ship. The story’s principal characters are two young boys who find work with a man who trades in exotic animals. While there an order comes in for a dragon that one of Mr. Jamrach’s employees heard existed in the Far East. Although the story never says what the dragon is the description is of a komodo dragon.
The story is not philosophical nor religious. Ms. Birch is intent on telling a tale. The closest she gets is one character’s personal reflection on death.
“Death was close. Sitting next to me. It hurt, if the others were anything to go by. And if them, why not me? How do you get there? Death, I mean, wherever it was the wild thing dropped you:you, breath-stopped, amazed. Will I there or drift? When would be the moment of knowing? What sound? What sight? The sky, dark or light? The side of the boat? Would I go hard or easy? What grief. More than anything else, what grief to leave the world.”
Starvation redefines taboos. This was so in Mark Twain’s famous short story about men trapped on a snowbound train. It is so here.
A.S. Byatt, an accomplished writer, is quoted as saying that this novel is one of the best stories he ever read. I cannot agree with him. It is a fast and entertaining read, but no more.