Jamrach's Menagerie, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a fascinating book. The subject matter is, at times, grim indeed but it's worth reading for the prose style alone. I have used the section about the capture of the Ora (page 162), for example, to show my students how to make use of the senses, and especially smell, in their own writing.
The book also raises some interesting questions for the Catholic English teacher. To explain further I need to mention some key moments in the plot so please look away now if you don't want to know what happens.
When the sailors are shipwrecked they cling at first to the vestiges of their humanity: they bury their dead at sea and pray. But as their plight and their actions become more desperate the novel's language also becomes more explicitly religious. The decision to turn cannibal creeps up on the characters and soon they are drinking blood and eating flesh:
"Drink of this," said Dan when it was his turn, raising the cup as if it was a chalice, "for this is my blood, shed for thee..."
It is the body and blood of ordinary human beings which sustain the sailors because, as one of the characters explains, "enough praying had gone on in that boat to sanctify all the holy places of the earth and it had long since become plain that God didn't answer. Not so's the average idiot could understand anyway."
However, religious questions remain to the fore as the plot begins to revolve around the notions of love and sacrifice. The last three sailors draw lots to decide who shall be shot and eaten and Jaffy, the young narrator, finds that he has agreed to kill his best friend, Tim. In a powerful but terrible inversion, Tim assures his friend that he's "got the worst of it":
"No blame, Jaf," he says. "I'd do the same for you. You're my best friend."
The novel ends not with Tim's death or with Jaf's rescue but with his return to London. Unable to face up to what he has done, he shuts himself away from everyone in the close-knit community, including Tim's mother and sister, the girl he has always loved. And yet his shame is all apparently self-imposed. When he emerges from his shell the people of Bermondsey do not reproach him for killing and eating one of their own. Even Tim's mother's verdict is: "I know it's not your fault, Jaffy ... I know it really, but it's just a very hard thing."
He lights candles for the dead in the seamen's bethel and gradually time and the understanding of those around him bring a kind of peace. But, however hard he tries to forget it, the essential question still remains: "My heart hurt, and at night I'd look up at the sky and remember the stars at sea and ask: am I forgiven?"
The answer, as far as there is an answer in the novel, seems to be yes. Tim's sister, the sister of the friend he has killed and eaten, moves in with him, in what is perhaps the book's most implausible moment, and life goes on.
One could say that this is a book in which the goodness of God is replaced by the goodness of people, a goodness so wide it can encompass even those who have resorted to cannibalism. As Carol Birch explains: "Partly what moved me to write this novel was how much love there was in the accounts of the people who survived for the people who hadn't."
Jaffy's world is ultimately godless and, ultimately, godless worlds do not work in the same way as God-filled ones so, although Jamrach's Menagerie is a beautiful and challenging novel, it is not one, I think, whose moral questioning can go unchallenged.