Like much of Carol Birch's other fiction, historical or contemporary, the neo-Victorian Jamrach's Menagerie features an urban, working-class protagonist trying, somehow, to make ends meet. In this instance, our first person narrator is a very poor boy indeed, Jaffy, a slumdweller-turned-animal keeper for the eponymous Mr. Jamrach. The young Jaffy meets Jamrach, who specializes in importing exotic animals for wealthy clients, when an escaped tiger (!) picks him up and carries him off. "The tiger made me" (13), Jaffy says, and this almost mystical experience leads to his acquaintance with twins Tim and Ishbel, both of whom Jaffy loves (despite their joint irascibility) and, years later, a trip with Jamrach's supplier, Dan, to capture a "dragon" for the Dickensian-sounding Malachi Fledge. This trip, which goes increasingly and fatally haywire in Raft of the Medusa/Donner Party fashion, occupies most of the novel, and turns out to be an exceptionally bleak coming of age.
Given the amount of time Jaffy and Tim spend aboard a whaler, it's hard not to think of Moby-Dick (especially when the captured dragon, escaped like the tiger, takes a bite out of someone's leg...), and the alert reader will also spot references to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (a dubiously-sane crewman hallucinating snakes in the ocean) and even Frankenstein (a jokingly-proposed trip to the Arctic). but the novel also evokes more generally the tradition of nautical adventure tales, themselves a popular Victorian genre--think Captain Frederick Marryat or Michael Scott. Yet this is not a novel in which a plucky youth achieves success and virtuous Christian manhood through dint of hard work and a sense of duty. In his encounter with the tiger, Jaffy experiences what he calls a "lostness" (9), an utter emptying-out of identity with no positive content, and the over two months he spends drifting after the whaler capsizes unmakes him as much as it makes him. Similarly, the quest to bring back the mysterious island dragon leads not to fame and fortune, in good adventure-tale fashion, but instead to a reptile "caked in its own shit and piss and vomit" (139), a horrific, brutal capture that ultimately produces more death and absolutely no glory. Travels to the great unknown, in other words, do not lead to much in the way of imperial conquest or wealth; plundering far-off spaces for the amusement of the British upper classes does not, to say the least, go well. The hodge-podge of global goods that litters Jamrach's shop turns out to be much less clean upon inspection.
Like many neo-Victorian novelists, Birch spends a lot of time on the physicality of Victorian existence--the way it feels and smells. There's the "crusty, black shit" of the sewers in which slum children are forced to scavenge (4), but also the "bitterly sweet" taste of Jaffy's first raspberry puff (16); later, as the survivors' boats drift and drift, their bodies sprout meticulously-detailed sores and their mouths tingle with "exquisite pain" (216) at the thought of food. (Not surprisingly, most of the time Jaffy spends lost at sea is devoted to thinking about food.) Although Jaffy's move from Bermondsey to Ratcliffe Highway is consciousness-raising when it comes to smell--"I didn't realize Bermondsey smelled of shit until we moved to the Highway" (6)--the plot actually tracks a circular path when it comes to physical experience. As a child, Jaffy is permanently starving and filthy; as a young adult lost at sea, Jaffy is still permanently starving and filthy. In that sense, Birch uses Jaffy's pained physicality to undercut the onwards-and-upwards narrative of the Victorian adventure tale. And although the novel concludes with Jaffy running a successful avian store, with bird cages of his own design, the implications are bittersweet at best. "Poor things," Jaffy thinks as he draws the birds in Jamrach's own shop, "you're here now and there's no going back. I'll make you some nice houses" (287). The birds, much like the post-adventure Jaffy, are simultaneously alienated and entrapped; the best that can be done is to acclimate oneself to a relatively well-appointed prison.
Although both the narrative structure and the nature of Jaffy's experiences have political implications, Jaffy the narrator simply takes this world as a given. He sympathizes, for example, with the poor plundered creatures in Jamrach's shop, but he is not given to reflecting on the system that has brought them there. He does not think about why Ishbel, a pre-teen girl, has to dance for drunken sailors for a living, or about why poor children like himself have to support their families. Even the middle-aged Jaffy, now a serious reader (with a somewhat ominous taste for laudanum ), is not particularly given to searching critiques of late-Victorian Britain (although he is frustrated by the increasing noise). This is not, that is, the sort of rebellious narrator popular with some neo-Victorian novelists; the injustices of this nineteenth-century world hover around the edges of Jaffy's consciousness, but more as ghosts than as explicit commentary. Birch expects, in other words, that we can draw our own conclusions.