Coming of Age on the High Seas

The coming-of-age drama  and its conventions are ubiquitous in our culture.  From Moby Dick to Stand By Me to The Wonder Years to The Virgin Suicides and thousands of others, they all share strikingly similar characteristics.  There is the first person narrative, told in flashback, from an older and wiser protagonist.  The requisite group of friends or comrades who fight and bond (and often die) over the course of the story. Often, there’s a love interest who the narrator cannot pursue until he’s completed some adventure.  And, there’s the life-altering event, a confrontation with death, which forever changes the narrator from an innocent to an adult.

What is most fascinating about this genre is how durable it is.  Despite being predictable and formulaic, works in this category are often brilliant pieces of storytelling which somehow encapsulate the human condition and what it means to grow up.

Case in point – Carol Birch’s  Jamrach’s Menagerie.  While adhering almost religiously to the conventions of the genre, it captivates the reader with a whimsical, harrowing story.

The aging protagonist of this story is Jaffy Brown.  As a child, Jaffy scoured the filth of London’s sewers for pennies until the day he approached a tiger on the street and literally escaped from the jaws of death and poverty.  The owner of the tiger, the titular Jamrach, is impressed by Jaffy’s pluck and offers him a job cleaning cages at his private zoo of exotic creatures.  Jaffy proves particularly adept at dealing with the animals so, in due time, he’s recruited on a shipping expedition to capture a fabled dragon from a South Pacific island.

Throw in the best friend, a love interest, a host of exotic locales and characters, hardship and, eventually, disaster, on the high seas – you’ve got yourself a coming-of-age tale.

Why is this coming-of-age on the open seas tale different from the dozens of others out there?  For one, the writing is quite good – Jaffy is a wonderful narrator for this kind of tale.  He’s serious, funny, emotional, stoic – all in just the right proportions.  You can palpably feel his fear as he and his band confront a Komodo dragon somewhere in Indonesia.  You understand completely when he punches Tim, his best friend, in the face early on in the story.  And you long with him for his mother and for Ishbel, the girl he loves, during some long nights at sea.

The eventual ordeal, the one that truly makes Jaffy confront who he really is, is no surprise to anyone familiar with seafaring adventures.  Yet, in its rawness and brutality, it stands out.  Especially through the eyes of Jaffy who, despite all the prior adventures and dangers, remains an innocent up until this point.  Yet, the reader is never, can never, be judgmental because of the implicit question: If Jaffy could be driven to such extremes, could I?   If that’s a bit cryptic, I hope that you’ll pick up a copy to find out what I mean.

As the convention dictates, Jaffy survives the ordeal and learns that you can never truly go home.  He is changed and will forever be so.  Perhaps that is the underlying appeal of coming-of-age tales. The inevitability and immutability of change and the lengths to which this change will drive us.

Whatever the reason, the genre seems to not get stale, certainly not with the addition of Jamrach’s Menagerie.

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4 comments

  1. This appears to be a welcome addition to the genre, I like the idea of high seas adventure with coming of age, an combination that brings to mind the likes of Robert luis Stevenson.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read this since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker (along with The Sisters Brothers, which I thought was EXCELLENT).

    Thanks for the review – I’ll be sure to pick it up now.

    1. Hi Brooks, thanks for coming by! I’ll have to look for a copy of The Sisters Brothers. I hadnt even heard about it until you mentioned it! This was a brilliant book – gripping, touching, funny. Definitely give it a try.

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