SOURCE: “First and Second Novels,” in Spectator, March 11, 1989, p. 42.
[In the following excerpt, Lezard compliments the dialogue and character development in Lucid Stars.]
Novelists, since Flaubert I suppose, have tried conscientiously to be as true to the Inner Experience of the characters they write about as possible, and one way of doing this is to put everything into the present tense. It makes it all so much more immediate. So: ‘she opens the fridge’ instead of ‘she opened the fridge.’ This is certainly intimate, but in the wrong hands it can feel like the intimacy of a crowded bus. Andrea Barrett, who is not Damon Runyon and has written Lucid Stars uses this gimmick with a vengeance. Her story, about a succession of relationships and the pseudo-familial obligations they create, takes place over 25 years, so the historic present can be said to Have A Point. Unfortunately, she finds the fixed, arbitrary patterns stars make (hence the book's title) more interesting than the historical resonances her narrative achieves, so the Point here is like, really, you know how everything changes and yet, er, everything stays the same, you know? My point is that Lucid Stars wouldn't be worth mentioning if it did not also contain beautifully recorded dialogue and enough nice touches to prove that, despite the sloppy thought behind the very idea of the book, the author does know what makes her characters tick.
Andrea Barrett 1965-
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Barrett's career through 2000.
Barrett is well regarded for her novels and short fiction that focus on the complex dynamics of family and personal relationships. Her fiction often includes female characters who are struggling to find happiness despite formidable obstacles. Barrett has also shown a recurring interest in scientific topics and the impact of science on the lives of her characters. She is best known for The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) and her short story collection Ship Fever and Other Stories (1996), which received a National Book Award.
Barrett was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1965, to Walter Barrett and Jacquelyn Knifong. She grew up largely on Cape Cod, and her childhood there instilled in her an interest in ocean exploration, marine biology, and natural history. In 1985, she received a B.S. in biology from Union College. Barrett also pursued graduate studies in zoology as well as medieval and Reformation theological history. Those areas of interest—science and history—have become dominant themes in her novels and short stories. In 1988, she published her first novel, Lucid Stars. She received a National Book Award in 1996 for her short fiction collection Ship Fever and Other Stories. A year later, Barrett was awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In October 2001, Barrett was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Barrett is an instructor in the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, and resides in Rochester, New York.
Barrett's first novel, Lucid Stars, recounts the tribulations of an American family, focusing primarily on a woman named Penny and her philandering husband. Penny eventually seeks a divorce and tries to focus on finding happiness in the study of astronomy and raising her children. Barrett's second novel, Secret Harmonies (1989), follows another woman's search for peace and fulfillment. The protagonist, Reba Dwyer, lives in rural Massachusetts with her meek, introspective brother, Hank, and her handicapped sister, Tonia. After a period of rebellion, Reba leaves her family and enters a conservatory for...
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women. She eventually moves back home when she finds out that her father has abandoned the family. Several months later, Reba marries a longtime friend and is forced to examine her life, her marriage, and the elusive nature of personal contentment. In 1991, Barrett releasedThe Middle Kingdom, a novel that traces the transformation of an unhappily married woman named Grace. After Grace accompanies her estranged husband to Beijing on a business trip, she falls ill with pneumonia. She slowly regains her health and her sense of independence, as she decides to remain in Beijing alone, eventually finding a job and lover. In 1993, Barrett published The Forms of Water, a multigenerational tale focusing on a dysfunctional family living in upstate New York. The story centers on an aging family patriarch, Brendon Auberon, who convinces his nephew, Henry, to steal a nursing-home vehicle and take him to the abbey where he had once lived as a monk. Brendon and Henry's journey alarms the other members of the family, who unite to find Brendon and return him to his nursing home. Ship Fever, a collection of Barrett's short fiction, appeared in 1996 and garnered considerable critical praise for the range of stories in the volume. As in Barrett's novels, several of the stories in Ship Fever deal with familial relationships. “The Marburg Sisters,” for example, is a tale of twin sisters, one of whom becomes a scientist while the other enters the world of drug addiction. Barrett returned to the novel form with the nineteenth-century drama The Voyage of the Narwhal, which follows Erasmus Darwin Wells, a young Philadelphian who signs up for a dangerous polar expedition led by a dashing but immature adventurer. The story focuses on the group's search for a team of explorers who went missing during their last voyage. Wells must come to terms with his role in the expedition and, after living through adventure and tragedy, readjust to his normal life back in Philadelphia.
Barrett has often been praised for bringing together the worlds of science and literature. Reviewers have commended her grasp of historical detail, focus on scientists and scientific concepts, and deft use of nineteenth-century settings. In particular, Barrett's short fiction has been noted for its ability to impart the excitement of scientific discovery to the reader. While reviewing Barrett's collection Ship Fever, Lisa Schwarzbaum noted that: “Each [story] is intricate and beautifully chiseled; taken together, the tales flow one to the other, linked by the author's fascination with and tender appreciation of science and scientists.” Barrett has been consistently complimented for her clear, lyrical prose and her engaging female characters. Her exploration of feminist themes, especially the issues facing female scientists, has been noted as one of the defining characteristics of Barrett's fiction. Some critics have regarded her work as slow paced and didactic, but many have applauded Barrett’s fiction for how it vividly explores complex relationships as well as the human endeavor to find peace and happiness in life.
SOURCE: “Familial Failings,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 12, 1989, p. 518.
[In the following excerpt, Bradham commends the engaging style and layers of detail found in Lucid Stars.]
Andrea Barrett's Lucid Stars is about the ex-wives and children of a man whose indifference alienates them all. While the motif of stars verges on the excessive and cute, Barrett surpasses those of her predecessors who have written in a similar style about similarly fragmented families. Her style is clear and well paced; the finest achievement of the novel is the portrait of the two children from the first marriage, Cass, strong-willed and independent, and her younger brother Webb, sweet, simple and uncomplicated, and the deep-rooted tenderness and comfortable affection that exist between them. Her depiction of these two as they mature from small children into young adults, as they react to the same events—their mother's departure, their parents' divorce, their father's remarriage—and develop in different ways, is consistent and convincing. Where many have written novels thick with detail and thin on character development, Barrett, much to her credit, has reversed the emphases and has rejected the notion that if details are layered thickly enough, they can give us glimpses into the characters hearts.
Lucid Stars (novel) 1988
Secret Harmonies (novel) 1989
The Middle Kingdom (novel) 1991
The Forms of Water (novel) 1993
Ship Fever and Other Stories (short stories) 1996
The Voyage of the Narwhal (novel) 1998
SOURCE: A review of The Middle Kingdom, in Washington Post Book World, May 5, 1991, p. 11.
[In the following review, Powers offers a positive assessment of The Middle Kingdom.]
Andrea Barrett's third novel, The Middle Kingdom, is the story of Grace Doerring (formerly Hoffmeier, formerly Martone) who grew up fat with a propensity to grow fatter. Grace is familiar to us from both life and literature. Tormented by her mother, messed with by her grandfather, married to a self-absorbed, unhinged artist, then to a self-absorbed, uptight scientist, she has always been a prop in other people's lives. She's the girl who just came along for the ride. And she feeds her empty heart with sweet things.
Things go from bad to worse for Grace until she arrives in China for a scientific conference as “an accompanying person” to her husband. Walter, the “acknowledged leader of the acid-rain world.” At first she is overwhelmed by the strangeness of it. And then very quickly frustrated by the isolation imposed upon her by her status.
Her only role in the conference is to show up at banquets with Walter, from whom she is almost completely estranged. It is her lot and that of the other “accompanying persons” to be moved by bus from one sightseeing spot to another, from one shopping opportunity to another. They are allowed to speak only to each other and to their guide. They are fed sanitized food and sterilized drink.
Soon the vicariousness of her experience in this vibrant land becomes too much for one whose whole life has been lived so vicariously. Grace escapes. She is befriended by a Chinese woman scientist and through her makes her way into the world as it is really lived by the Chinese. And in the end Grace decides to stay.
Though she must eventually leave, she does not go as she came. She now has a child. And she has found the immediacy of life she lacked in her American existence.
In The Middle Kingdom Andrea Barrett does not, perhaps, cross new thresholds into the soul of women or the heart of China, but her novel is engaging. She writes with felicity, intelligence and humor.
SOURCE: A review of The Forms of Water, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993, p. 50.
[In the following review, Berch offers a positive assessment of The Forms of Water.]
A well-structured novel, like a well-designed house, can be quite pleasurable no matter how it is furnished. Whether the subject matter of The Forms of Water—children without parents who later become childish parents, the ways families repeat themselves, the importance of home—is of interest to all readers or not, the book is crafted with such care, it can be appreciated on that level alone.
The Forms of Water is the story of a family that fell apart a generation or two back, when their New England village was removed to build a reservoir, and then one son went to World War II and never got over it. Shortly thereafter, the son and his wife died in a car crash, their two orphaned children went to live with the embittered grandparents … and now those two children have their own dysfunctional families. The novel opens on the last surviving member of the older generation, great-uncle Brendan, who is determined to leave his nursing home for one last look at the old family land. He cons his nephew into hijacking an ambulette to take him there, which becomes the plot's vehicle for the gathering together of this disintegrated family.
Barrett's imagery is oddly memorable. She introduces Brendan in the nursing home: “He'd shriveled up so much that his skin hung on him now like a suit made for two men, one of whom had already died.” His heart “stutters” when he meets a childhood friend. Her description of young Wiloma's care for her dying grandfather—how she moistened the dry pills under his tongue so he could swallow them, how she read to him from his old physics book as if it were a sort of Bible—is so moving you forgive the adult Wiloma for all her religio-psychobabble.
True, Barrett could have ended her book earlier: the nursing home “funeral” and the folklore invented around Brendan's escapades would have made a natural and satisfying closing. Instead, she loads us down with a lot of hasty, epilogue-ish detail about what happened to everyone afterwards. And since the teenagers were the weakest characters of the cast, it's tedious to have to read more about them. But that's a small flaw in an otherwise satisfying novel.
op de Beeck, Nathalie. “Science, Nature and Regret.” Washington Post Book World (11 February 1996): 8.
Beeck praises the “experimental edge” and wide appeal of the stories in Ship Fever.
Bilgore, Ellen. “One Family's Symphony.” Washington Post Book World (26 September 1989): D3.
Bilgore compliments the rhythm of Barrett's prose and her thematic structure in Secret Harmonies.
Cole, Diane. “From Andrea Barrett, Another Kind of Science Fiction.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 February 1996): 7.
Cole offers a positive assessment of Ship Fever, praising Barrett's mixture of history and science.
Osborne, Linda. “The Age of Anxiety.” Washington Post Book World XVIII, No. 36 (4 September 1988): 6.
Osborne offers a positive assessment of Lucid Stars.
Rauch, Molly E. Review of Ship Fever and Other Stories, by Andrea Barrett. Nation 262, No. 4 (29 January 1996): 32–33.
Rauch offers a mixed assessment of Ship Fever.
Additional coverage of Barrett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors,Vol. 156; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 92; and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: “Collision of Dreams,” in Washington Post Book World, June 7, 1993, p. D2.
[In the following positive review, Benedict calls The Forms of Water an “elegiac” and “intelligent” novel.]
A certain appetite for land (an appetite remarkable for its fierce, even rapacious nature) is a major constituent of the American character. It's part of our national heritage. Historically, the United States has also provided safe haven for, and been the birthplace of, any number of utopian religions, from the Shakers to the Mormons to the Seventh-Day Adventists. These seemingly antithetical currents in American life flow powerfully together in The Forms of Water. Andrea Barrett's intelligent and elegiac fourth novel.
At issue in the book is the disposition of 200 acres of undeveloped woodland at the edge of a vast man-made lake. This plot of ground is all that remained to the Auberon family when, in the '30s, their home area (known, not coincidentally, as Paradise Valley) was flooded to make a reservoir for the distant city of Boston. The land belongs to 80-year-old Brendan Auberon, a former monk who resides, crippled by arthritis, at St. Benedict's nursing home. Brendan sets the narrative in motion when he tricks his nephew Henry into liberating one of the home's vans and heading out for the remnants of the homestead.
The two protagonists are embodiments of very different philosophies. Brendan is a dying mystic who pines for the solitude he found within the walls of his first beloved abbey before it vanished beneath the rising waters of the reservoir. His utopia is gone. Henry is a bankrupt real estate developer who dreams of the deal that will redeem his own imperfect past. Each savors his private vision of what awaits at the lake's edge, which neither has visited in decades.
Their departure touches off a series of confrontations among the many divisions of the extended Auberon family. Henry seeks out his estranged wife, Kitty, in order to borrow some cash to make his ill-starred trip possible. Henry's sister, Wiloma, who adheres to a bodiless religion and whose creed consists of unremarkable bromides (“There is no guilt. There is no blame. Life is what you believe it is”) clashes with her daughter over her plans to bring Brendan to live in their home. And Waldo, Wiloma's ex-husband and Henry's former business partner, convinces Wiloma that he can help her find her uncle, whose cancer she hopes to heal through the power of positive thought and the cleansing diet prescribed by a priestess-like “neuro-nutritionist.”
Three generations of Auberon relatives set out on their individual odysseys, until there are eight of them converging from various directions on the parcel of land: Brendan and Wiloma, whose motives derive from religious conviction; Henry and Waldo, who trail the twin scents of commerce and profit; and four members of the third generation, unconcerned with family history, following the dictates of youthful inexpressible and inchoate love.
None of which is familiar with the area, and they employ various awkward strategies to find the anonymous section of shoreline that belongs to Brendan. When they come together, the tragedy that has been looming finally breaks over them. In its aftermath, each member of the family inherits something unsettling and unforeseen. Each finds a measure of those diametric opposites: the lightness of the transcendent and the density of earth.
Barrett is a skillful writer. She moves smoothly among the many consciousnesses that inhabit her book, giving us the clearly defined and differentiated personalities and voices of Brendan, Henry, Wiloma and Wendy, Wiloma's daughter. In addition, she includes material from a number of fictional written sources, including letters to the editor of a Paradise Valley newspaper, a textbook on the different guises that water can take, religious tracts and some wonderfully evocative passages from Brendan's father's journal. Barrett deals evenhandedly with her characters, making none of them a false hero or goat. It is clear that she has great affection for this sprawling, troubled and troublesome brood, with all their greed and utopian folly.
This winning novel is not merely the story of a family divided over its inheritance; there is far more of Genesis than of King Lear in its pages. In its contemporary retelling of the deluge story, however, the patriarch fails to heed prophecy. Rather than ensure the preservation of his kin, he grows bitter and obstinate. Consequently, his offspring and theirs are doomed to wander the face of the Earth, bereft of a home place. The Forms of Water reads as though it might be the chronicle of the descendants of some prideful American cousin to Noah.
SOURCE: “Family Tug-of-War over a Plot of Land,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 29, 1993, p. E8.
[In the following review, Goodrich offers a mixed assessment of The Forms of Water.]
[In The Forms of Water] Henry Auberon has returned with his Uncle Brendan to Coreopsis Heights, the real-estate subdivision that proved to be his undoing.
Half-built houses, bulldozer slashes in the hillside, dried mud, aging lumber, even squatters: It's a grisly reminder of failure, but Henry sees, perhaps for the first time, that no amount of risk would have prevented him from developing the family land.
“Gone, he thought. All of it. And as he continued to look at his uncle's face, he wondered if Coreopsis Heights had not been, all along, simply the only way he could find to destroy the memory of his childhood there”—that what he felt while watching his grandparents' homestead fall was not the thrill of new beginnings but “the joy of destruction,” the obliteration of the last physical vestiges of his childhood.
The despoiling of rural ways of life through real-estate development has become a common literary theme in recent years, fueled largely by growing environmental awareness and the sheer crudeness of the average suburban housing venture.
At first, such destruction appears to be a major theme in Andrea Barrett's newest novel, her fourth [The Forms of Water], but the story turns out to be rather more complicated: Henry is more pathetic than unscrupulous, Brendan's connection to his ancestral home is limited, and the remaining members of the Auberon clan are driven primarily by self-interest.
Although by the end of the novel Henry seems to have understood the error of his ways, The Forms of Water isn't a simple morality tale in which the just are rewarded and the unjust punished.
Barrett has written The Forms of Water, surprisingly, as a kind of road novel. Brendan, a former monk and now a crippled resident of a rest home in Upstate New York, has persuaded Henry to “borrow” a rest-home van and take him to a secluded plot of land next to Stillwater Reservoir in Massachusetts. The van is soon reported missing, and Henry and Brendan become the unlikely focus of a manhunt—unlikely because neither man is particularly wanted, by family or by authorities.
There's soon a caravan of sorts, however, as various Auberons figure out where Henry and Brendan have headed and decide, for their selfish reasons, to catch up with them. Wiloma, Henry's sister, wants to save Brendan's mortal soul by taking him home and introducing him to her cultish Church of New Reason; Waldo, Wiloma's ex-husband and a more successful real-estate investor than Henry, hopes to get his hands on Brendan's 200 acres; even the cousins. Wiloma's and Henry's children, join the chase, worried that their parents will end up reliving old family disputes.
Barrett follows each of these groups—Henry and Brendan, Waldo and Wiloma and the carload of cousins—as they make their way toward the reservoir, and the result is an overly diffuse narrative.
Henry and Brendan are much more interesting characters than Waldo and Wiloma or the younger generation, for they seem to have real concerns and real confusions in their lives, to believe that their adventure, however misguided, is truly about something.
It's clear, though, why Barrett has developed the other characters at some length: so she can have a convincing rendezvous when the three bands of relations converge to watch Brendan, in the novel's climactic scene, go out in a rowboat on Stillwater Reservoir, which used to be Paradise Valley, where Brendan lived before it was dammed to create a water supply for Boston.
Brendan has come here to mourn that loss, and when Henry understands that, he also understands why the development of Coreopsis Heights was a mistake.
The Forms of Water is a curious book, overstuffed with apparently meaningful memories and moments and relatively shapeless, given direction chiefly by the magnetic pull of Brendan's land. Yet the book is frequently compelling, for Barrett is a good writer drawing, one senses, from a deep and difficult place.
There are no speeches about progress in this novel, about the need to balance development with preservation, the past with the future, but those issues form the backdrop against which this novel takes place.
It's tempting to say that The Forms of Water would have been a better book if Barrett had made the connection between her characters and this background more explicit, but in this age of heavy-handedness, one doesn't want to chide a writer for showing an unexpectedly light touch.
SOURCE: “Nor Good Red Herring: Novellas and Stories,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 808–18.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw explores the unifying thematic material in Ship Fever.]
The stories and novella in Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever are bound by a clear thematic unity: all of the book's characters are, in some fashion, scientists, and in every tale science provides both the framework and a metaphor for the action. “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” centers on a genetics professor's wife, “Birds with No Feet” on a chronically unsuccessful collector of rare natural specimens in the nineteenth century, “Rare Bird” on an eighteenth-century would-be naturalist frustrated in her ambitions because she is female.
It is not coincidental that the stories focus on minor characters, science's also-rans: Even in “The English Pupil”—the collection's one offering that features a famous figure—botanist Carl Linnaeus' body is already doddering, and his mind, “which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly.” Barrett's interest lies not with the successful, the famous, or those at the height of their powers, but rather with the helpers and assistants, the amateurs, the ones who labor on without reward, seemingly unable to stop themselves.
Her characters are obsessives, and she presents their obsessions with lyric tenderness. Gregor Mendel's garden, remembered by a man who had worked for the great geneticist, was an enchanted place filled not only with pea plants but by “the tame fox he tied up during the day but allowed to run free at night, the hedgehogs and the hamsters and the mice he kept, the beehives and the cages full of birds.” And the specimen collector in “Birds with No Feet” mourns the loss, by fire, of “[h]is sweet sloth, no bigger than a rabbit, with his charming habit of hanging upside down on the back of a chair and his melancholy expression.” But for all the elegiac grace of these descriptions, Barrett is no romantic. In “The Littoral Zone” the same salt that sparkles on the skin causes infections to set in, a gala trip to the Andes in “Soroche” causes altitude sickness, and swallows found dead in “Rare Bird” are “not wrapped serene in a cocoon of wings” but rather are “twisted and sprawled.” Barrett brings a naturalist's eye to her stories, and the resulting accuracy of observation gives them a sense of gravity—not only weight, but seriousness.
The same serious, observant eye is turned to characters, gravely examining the facts of their lives—many of these tales tell entire life stories—and presenting those facts so that readers might draw conclusions. The tone is not judgmental, but it is careful, investing the characters with haunting dignity. Perhaps the best example of Barrett's scrupulous care comes in “The Littoral Zone,” a story about a love affair between two married scientists which blasts apart their marriages and all the lives that have been contained in them. Ruby and Jonathan meet at a marine biology research station; they return home after three weeks and are met by their respective families on a dock in New Hampshire.
Nothing that was to come—not the days in court, nor the days they moved, nor the losses of jobs and homes—would ever seem so awful to them as that moment when they first saw their families standing there, unaware and hopeful. Deceitfully, treacherously, Ruby and Jonathan separated and walked to the people awaiting them. They didn't introduce each other to their spouses. They didn't look at each other—although, they later admitted, they cast covert looks at each other's families. They thought they were invisible, that no one could see what had happened between them. They thought their families would not remember how they had stepped off the boat and stood, for an instant, together.
The passage occurs early in the story; Ruby and Jonathan go on to share a settled life, and their children come to visit them. But their eventual ease doesn't block out the astonishing pain of this moment on the dock, and whatever pleasure comes in their lives together must always be weighed against the first, widespread cost.
Barrett's prose moves with a scalpel's accurate delicacy, and her stories; have the sense of consequence of longer pieces. So when I came to “Ship Fever,” the novella that completes the volume, I was surprised to find that she doesn't continue in this lyrical, contemplative fashion, which would seen ideal for the work. Instead, the pacing accelerates.
“Ship Fever” begins with a letter sent in 1847 to Dr. Laughlin Grand from Arthur Adam Rowley, describing the horrifying conditions he has found in Ireland as a result of the potato famine. Quickly, deftly, Barrett fills in the relationship between these men: they are friends, and Arthur Adam is married to Susannah, whom Laughlin has loved secretly since boyhood. For many writers, these relationship would be the obvious center of narrative interest, but Barrett turns the usual pattern inside out. Here, the romantic triangle forms the background for the novella's real subject: the ships that came to America and Canada in the midnineteenth century jammed with typhus-stricken immigrants. The tactic is ingenious, allowing Barrett to use her main characters for reference points inside the story of a plague—small, human voice crying out in a sea of fear and disease.
“Ship Fever” lacks none of the fine detail or elegant expression of the stories that precede it, but it carries a greater urgency; many lives are lost in these pages, and Barrett manages both to register those losses and to keep out eyes on the larger picture. By maintaining a close focus within a larger vision, she creates several layers of experience—the stench and terror of the suffering, the incomprehension of epidemiologists, the helplessness and despair of doctors faced with wave after wave of desperately sick people for whom, they know, their medicines are too few and too feeble. In the end, “Ship Fever” illustrates how inextricably heroism is linked to despair, and human accomplishment yoked to human defeat. Barrett's novella displays the same grave intelligence that animates every other fiction in her sure-footed collection—the most moving, accomplished book I have read for some time.
SOURCE: “Images of Science Past,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 32, August 10, 1998, p. 363.
[In the following essay, Baker provides an overview of Barrett's life and work, as well as discussing her recent critical success.]
Rochester, N.Y., home to corporate headquarters for Eastman Kodak and for Xerox, styles itself “The World's Image Centre.” It is a city much concerned with capturing the past and, indeed, a city that finds the past palpable in the present. Along the expressways that divide the town, Kodak billboards beam the golden-yellow hue indelibly associated with that firm's brands, and the city seems to draw energy from the timeless trademark. Beneath their patina of rust-belt obsolescence, aging factories are reminders of an industrial heyday, while well-preserved residential boulevards march towards the city limits, evoking a statelier era.
In her own way, Rochester resident Andrea Barrett has become a leading light of the image industry. She doesn't ply the trade of a scientist or an engineer; rather, she crafts powerfully vivid works of fiction, most recently The Voyage of the Narwhal, an epic of 19th-century polar exploration due in September from Norton. In 1996, Barrett surprised the publishing world by winning the National Book Award for fiction, in a decision that startled many industry insiders. Since then, the powerful volume that garnered the prize, the story collection Ship Fever, has won additional acclaim. Yet Barrett herself remains something of an enigma. To understand Barrett, it helps to understand that if she seemed to come from nowhere to take home NBA laurels, she actually came from a place long devoted to the science of making memory tangible.
Memories both personal and historical saturate Barrett's shady, barn-red three-story home, which lies not far from The George Eastman House, Rochester's noted museum of photography and cinema. Photographs of China and the Arctic recall Barrett's travels. A 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica set—the edition most treasured by historians—fills several bookshelves, while the coffee table offers a volume titled Voices of the Spirit World, which contains communications from the great beyond transcribed by a spiritualist medium and published in Rochester in 1855. The collection's most striking figure is its curator, Barrett herself: a lanky woman whose animated face peers out from under a crown of long tresses. Barrett's own voice is tremulous; her long sentences emerge in the torrent characteristic of a shy person determined to be voluble.
Barrett has often sought to seclude herself with her work, and, when she has emerged, she has often eschewed the role of author. “Until recently,” she confides, “hardly anybody here knew I was a writer—they knew me as my dogs' mother, walking around the neighborhood.” She is still adjusting to the attention brought by the success of Ship Fever. “The phone plagues me,” she sighs. “I really can't make something new unless I feel that at least for a while it's completely secret,” she says. “I can't work on it. I can't think about it. I don't sell books before they're done, and I don't show them to my agent or my editor.”
Yet Barrett is poised to become a more public figure in the wake of The Narwhal's publication. Her new novel resembles many of the stories in Ship Fever in its 19th-century setting and in its choice of a scientist as its protagonist. But by unfurling a larger canvas with The Narwhal, Barrett extends into new territory her uncanny ability to make stories of science past illuminate today's world. The Narwhal imagines the travails of botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who signs on to a polar expedition led by his sister's dashing but dangerously immature suitor. The novel's drama eventually encompasses not only how they search for a previous, lost team of explorers, but also how they navigate the sea of publicity when they return to their native Philadelphia.
Barrett, too, has felt the allure of extreme climes. A year ago last June, with the support of a Guggenheim Foundation grant, she traveled to the northern coast of Baffin Island, where she gathered much “visceral detail” for the book. Still, Barrett expresses some bafflement at the prospect that The Narwhal might bring her a still larger public. “I thought I was writing a deeply obscure book,” she avers, “about some mid-19th-century Arctic explorers and naturalists,” about “material that ought not to be of interest to anyone but me.” But people have likened The Narwhal, she says, to the adventure tales that have swept into the mainstream recently, from John Krakauer's Into Thin Air to fellow Norton author Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and, of course, the ultimate iceberg saga, Titanic.
“The idea of this as an adventure story is very funny to me,” Barrett says with a giddy laugh. “What I was after was much more ruminative. In fact, although the research I was drawing from is full of adventure, I think this book is much less full of adventure. Its people are painters and writers, they're thinking and mulling, they're seeing, they're looking. They're not going out and slashing polar bears to death.”
Barrett shares the scientific bent and love of the outdoors characteristic of her protagonists. Born in Boston, she grew up largely on Cape Cod, where her childhood days on the beach instilled a deep feeling for the ocean and a passionate interest in natural history. By age 19, she had graduated from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., with a degree in biology. On a first foray into graduate school—at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst—Barrett studied zoology, a discipline in which she remains enmeshed: on this day, her writing desk bears a textbook open to pages illustrating various jellyfish. “The Littoral Zone,” a Ship Fever story, “is going in a Norton Anthology,” Barrett explains, “and the editors asked me to write footnotes.”
Barrett would later return to U. Mass to study medieval and Reformation theological history. It was during this second sojourn in graduate school that she became conscious of her true vocation. “Writing papers about the Inquisition or the early days of the Franciscan order, I was going through exactly the same process I use now to make my fiction,” she recalls. “I'd go to the library and pull out everything, fill my room and become obsessed with the shape and the texture of the paper, and the way the words look, trying to make it all dramatic. At some point I realized: ‘hey, this isn't history, and I'm not a scholar.’”
Subsequently, Barrett moved to Rochester, where her husband was doing an M.D./Ph.D. program. The couple lived a bleak, monastic existence, residing in a “crumbling graduate student housing tower.” Barrett took secretarial jobs in science and medical labs, where, she recalls, “if it was slow, I could put paper in the typewriter and pretend I was typing notes—and I just started writing this novel.” Barrett characterizes her first effort—never published—as “unspeakably horrible. I'd go to the library and get other novels and read those, and books about how books are put together, and criticism, and then I'd write. It was an awful experience and the book was awful. And I spent forever doing it.” This lonely apprenticeship stretched from the end of 1977 until Barrett's first visit to Breadloaf, in 1984.
Barrett first went to Breadloaf “as what they call a contributor, the lowest rank of what used to be an infinite hierarchy—which is to say that I paid cash money. I'd written one or two little stories, and I brought them up for the workshop. But of course I had the novel in my purse, as does everyone who goes to a writers' conference.”
Barrett's first big break arose from a workshop with Nicholas Delbanco and Thomas Gavin. Delbanco, says Barrett, “did two incredibly generous things.” First, “he offered to read my novel, and then he read it up there. Now that I teach [in the M.F.A. program at North Carolina's Warren Wilson College], I realize how improbable and impossible that is.” Then, she continues, Delbanco “sat me down and said that I could probably be a writer if I wanted to be, that I had a voice, but that I had learned to write on this novel and could never save it, and that I should throw it out and move on. Which I also now realize is an incredibly difficult thing to say to a writer—and it was exactly what I needed. It was the best thing anybody ever did for me. I cried for a day, and then I threw it out, and then I wrote Lucid Stars.”
Through subsequent trips to Breadloaf, Barrett met Wendy Weil, who became her agent. Editor Jane Rosenman, then at Delacorte, bought Barrett's intergenerational saga, which traces how a family of strong women learn to rely on each other for help in life's crises. Barrett cherished Rosenman's nurturing support, and the editor and press so esteemed Lucid Stars that they chose it to launch its Delta imprint for paperback originals. Secret Harmonies, more tightly focused on a musically gifted woman's mixed experience of marriage, followed as a Delacorte hardcover. Barrett finds her diverse work “strangely of a piece, in the sense that I've always relied quite heavily on research to provide both the plot of my novels and the stuff that is the background of the character's lives.”
But one real transition, to Barrett's mind, came with The Middle Kingdom, a novel about an American who visits China with her biologist husband, published by Pocket after Rosenman moved to that press in 1990. (Like Secret Harmonies and The Forms of Water—a novel that chronicles the twilight journey of an elderly ex-monk—it is currently available as a Washington Square paperback.) Where her first two novels were “some uneasy fusion of research, perception of contemporary life and fragments taken from my own life or the lives of people I knew,” The Middle Kingdom, Barrett says, “really bears no relation to my own life, and yet I was able to use the spine of my trip there in 1986 as a way to access through research a whole other set of lives. That was a kind of revelation.”
The cerebral ambitions of The Middle Kingdom and, especially, of her subsequent novel, The Forms of Water, found Barrett departing from the mainstream at Pocket. The Ship Fever collection marked a still more radical departure. Funded by a NEA grant, and nearing despair over her novel's perceived lack of commercial viability, Barrett set out to experiment with the short story form. Intense research into the history of natural science and medicine bore fruit in a stunning series of vignettes of past and present scientists—among them Linnaeus and Mendel—culminating in the title novella, in which a young Canadian doctor becomes so consumed by his work saving sick Irish immigrants that he himself falls victim to their affliction.
Yet when Barrett submitted Ship Fever to Pocket, the outcome was a parting of the ways between author and publisher. Rosenman now says that she “felt that Andrea's luminous writing would be better served by a hardcover publisher more exclusively devoted to literary fare.” Cast out of the world of conglomerate publishing, Barrett landed at Norton, where Ship Fever prospered under the solicitous wing of Carol Houck Smith. Barrett lauds Smith as an “amazing person. I don't think that Ship Fever was an easy book for her to buy, and then she was so solidly behind it; she fought for it like an archangel.”
The attention to Ship Fever has opened up diverse new audiences for Barrett, and she is slowly learning to recognize signs of the public's appreciation. She tells, for example, of a visit this past spring to a Washington, D.C., high school, where “a gifted teacher” invited her to meet a class that had read her stories. “They were such amazing students, so engaged and articulate,” she says. What's more, as Barrett discovered to her delight, the students had an unexpected tribute up their sleeves. The whole class wore long white lab coats—donned, it turned out, not for some preceding home economics class, as Barrett at first surmised, but rather as a humorous tribute to her and her scientific protagonists. Barrett will continue to win accolades. But she will long remember how these young readers so fittingly styled themselves her fellow workers in the endeavor to bring together the imaginative worlds of science and literature.
SOURCE: “Sailing into Madness,” in Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1998, p. 3.
[In the following mixed review, Yardley admires the insight and intelligence of The Voyage of the Narwhal, but derides the novel as “didactic.”]
This sixth work of fiction [The Voyage of the Narwhal] by a recent winner of the National Book Award is an interesting but peculiar mixture of Darwin (The Voyage of the Beagle), Nordhoff and Hall (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Wouk (The Caine Mutiny). Set in the mid-19th century, it is the story of a failed Arctic expedition and the reverberations it sets off in the lives not merely of those aboard the ship, the Narwhal, but of other people as well. It is at once a rather conventional adventure story and a rumination on matters that are rarely encountered in such tales, i.e., science, solitude, community and fame.
The story, though fictional, is grounded in historical fact. In the spring of 1845 a British explorer named Sir John Franklin sailed for the Arctic, “with over a hundred of the British Navy's finest men” in two ships, “provisioned for three years.” Last seen in July of that year, he and his company left tantalizing, in some cases gruesome, evidence of a dreadful end that almost certainly involved starvation and may have included cannibalism.
Now, in 1855, a crew of barely more than a dozen, assembled by Zechariah “Zeke” Voorhees of Philadelphia, sets sail along Franklin's route. Its apparent purpose is to discover the truth about that expedition's fate, but as the mission unfolds it becomes apparent that the real purpose is to achieve fame for its commander. Zeke puts it plainly to his old friend Erasmus Wells, a naturalist and the novel's protagonist. “I want my name on something,” he says. “Something big—is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map.”
This is, need it be said, very much a theme of the late 20th century, and Barrett makes it even more explicitly so by staging, in the aftermath of the Narwhal's voyage, a competition between Zeke and Erasmus to be first in the streets with books setting forth their quite different versions of it. His own book, Erasmus tells Zeke, “isn't … about our journey, … It's about the place—a natural history of the place through the seasons,” to which Zeke replies: “Write if it pleases you. It's hard to believe anyone will want to read such a thing, though. Not when they see what I have to say, the story I have to tell.”
About all of which one observer writes: “Is everyone writing a book?” The question is to the point, but the point has more to do with the late 20th century than the mid-19th. Though various explorers and their companions wrote accounts of their successful or failed voyages, and though the urge for fame has always coursed through the human psyche, the clamor for publicity and eclat that Barrett describes—it includes Zeke parading about with an Eskimo woman and her young son, one stop being the Great Hall of the Smithsonian—is a phenomenon of our own time. The questions it raises may be timeless, yet there is something self-conscious and artificial about Barrett's attempt, however honorable and well-intentioned, to impose it on this situation and set of characters. The result is that when it comes to the book's central theme, the author's method is too programmatic and the reader is all too aware of the machinery at work.
The prelude to this race for the prize of fame is a strange trip into the unknown, or the semi-known. At the time of which Barrett writes, science was at the verge of exploding into terrains previously unimaginable. Darwin had made his historic trip aboard the Beagle well before the Narwhal sailed toward the Arctic, but the publication of The Origin of Species was still four years away; other publications and discoveries of comparable import were to follow in the years before the turn of the 20th century. Men of science such as Erasmus and the friend he makes aboard the Narwhal, Dr. Jan Boerhaave, were struggling, with varying degrees of confidence, toward a future that contained far more mystery than certitude.
Erasmus is on the Narwhal as a gesture toward scientific discovery and, or so at least he thinks, as the emissary of his sister, Lavinia, who is Zeke's fiancee and wants her brother to keep a protective eye on him. Though there are some experienced sailors in the ship's small crew, basically those aboard are all, like Erasmus, amateur seamen; they are, as a disdainful whaling captain eventually tells them, “discovery men,” “arctic exploring types … who go off on exploring expeditions, with funding and fanfare and special clothes, thinking you'll discover something”—in a word, dilettantes, by contrast with true men of the sea.
Whatever they are, they manage to blunder into a number of fixes, partly through rashness or incompetence, more because Zeke begins to slip off the deep end, in so doing conjuring, for today's reader, images of Captains Bligh and Queeg. Whether what the crew of the Narwhal does in response to Zeke's willful, erratic behavior constitutes mutiny is perhaps for maritime lawyers to judge, but as was true of the rebels of the Bounty and the Caine, the crew of the Narwhal finds that breaking free from their aberrant commander is not as easy as they expect it to be.
That, in an exceedingly small nutshell, is the adventure story; when Erasmus and others make their way back to Philadelphia, heavier thematic business takes over. Barrett is as thoughtful as she is intelligent, so all of these matters are handled with subtlety and care, but it's hard not to feel that Barrett's own ship is overloaded with thematic and symbolic baggage, that there's too much tell and not enough show. The Voyage of the Narwhal is a serious and ambitious book, but it is so resolutely earnest, at times so didactic, that, like a sea lion in the waters through which the Narwhal attempts to sail, the reader feels a powerful urge to come up for air. The Voyage of the Narwhal is easier to admire than to like.
SOURCE: “Exploring Inner Landscapes,” in Chicago Tribune Books, September 13, 1998, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following positive review of The Voyage of the Narwhal, Graham praises Barrett's detailed historical research.]
As readers of her National Book Award-winning story collection Ship Fever know, Andrea Barrett has long been fascinated by the ironies of the scientific endeavor, how the quest for a clarity of vision is often distorted by the complications of human passion. In her powerful new novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett continues to examine, now on a grand scale, the myriad dangers of gathering knowledge of the world without at the same time deepening a knowledge of the self.
In May 1855, the Narwhal sets sail from Philadelphia in search of any sign of the lost arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin. Sharing this voyage are Zeke Voorhees, commander of the rescue party, and Erasmus Wells, the ship's naturalist. Initially allies, these two men are embarking on separate personal journeys that will set them at odds with each other.
Erasmus hopes above all to write a naturalist's account of this new voyage and thereby erase his disappointments from an earlier expedition exploring the Pacific. Middle-aged and burdened by self-doubt, Erasmus traces the vacillations of his life to the tales from Pliny's Natural History that his father, a wealthy armchair explorer, read to him and his brothers. Peppered among accurate descriptions were often fantastic tales of oysters that gave birth to pearls conceived by the dew, and mouthless people near the Ganges River who lived off the odors they breathed. Erasmus has long wondered, “What would it mean … to grow up hearing stories in which truth and falsehood are mingled like the minerals in granite?”
As a young boy, Zeke had sometimes joined the “‘wonderful, fertile clutter’” of the neighboring Wells family and listened to the same tales of Pliny, enthralled not by their curious blend of truth and falsehood but by the promised romance of exploration. Now vibrant with youthful energy and engaged to Erasmus' younger sister Lavinia, Zeke is less interested in his rescue mission than the possibility of discovering an open polar sea and the personal glow that would come to him from such a feat.
Once at sea, Zeke reveals a dangerous lack of humility in the face of the unknown. His willful decisions, often overriding those of the ship's captain, lead to “a single long nightmare” of navigating through shifting waters filled with enormous icebergs. Once the Narwhal becomes trapped in ice, the crew must survive the arctic winter's extraordinary cold and isolation.
This harsh setback secretly suits Zeke who, keeping counsel with no one, bends his efforts toward locating that fabled polar sea. He seeks out bands of wary Inuit, hoping to engage their assistance, always impervious to the irony that they have traveled for millenniums across any landscapes he might “discover.” The ship's captain, reduced to despair and drink at the prospect of this enforced long winter, makes a paper tombstone with spaces for the names of not only those already dead but for the remaining crew members of the Narwhal. Zeke, however, is more affected by the deaths of his pet sledding dog and fox than by the loss of any crew members.
Though the explorers are soon enough reduced to searching caribou skins for the burrows of warble fly grubs—which they find “‘[f]resh-tasting, a little sweet’”—they are also somehow able to bide their time by building, out of the surrounding ice, fanciful copies of a Greek temple, the Boston library and a Japanese garden. The startling juxta-positions of arctic travel could not be more poignant.
Spring and summer return, and still the ship remains locked in ice. As Zeke's emotional isolation continues, Erasmus develops a warm friendship with the ship's doctor, Jan Boerhaave, whose own imagination is quickened by the world's natural wonders. When Boerhaave dies during an ill-advised journey to an Inuit settlement, Erasmus secretly blames Zeke for his death, yet he is torn by doubt over how to respond. Is Zeke only the misguided future brother-in-law he has vowed to protect, or a dangerous commander who must be challenged?
Erasmus' dilemma is reflected in the arctic landscape surrounding him: “By now he'd long been familiar with the way the blank ice shifted perspective and perception—how what looked like a bear, far away, might turn out to be a hare nearby; how a nearby gentle hill might resolve into a distant, mighty range.” Zeke's true identity, like this arctic ice, like Pliny's tales, is too difficult for Erasmus to resolve, though he does refuse to accompany Zeke on one last quixotic exploratory trek.
In no way chastened by his accumulating failures, Zeke sets off alone across the ice, leaving Erasmus in charge. When Zeke doesn't return by the promised date, no one among the expedition believes he could have survived. After long days of soul searching, Erasmus gives the order to leave the still ice-locked Narwhal rather than risk the uncertainties of another harsh arctic winter. Standing in the belly of the ship he is about to abandon, Erasmus pauses in despair: “Next to his head was the skin of the ship, a wall of wood; and beyond that waves, water, wind, creatures flying and swimming and breathing, the world spinning and stars whirling around the fixed pole to the north. Years from now, so much later, he would remember wanting to punch through that wall and dive into the waiting water.”
During the long and punishing overland journey home, Erasmus loses his toes to frostbite, resulting in a physical infirmity of balance that mirrors his inner doubts as the novel shifts, nearly at midpoint, from the arctic to Philadelphia. Yet Erasmus' journey continues within him, still fraught with seemingly irresolvable moral ambiguities. His necessary inner accounting, which offers the possibility of personal redemption, comes to parallel the artistic and emotional growth of Alexandra Copeland who, employed as a companion to Lavinia, chaffs at the confines of her class and sex.
Barrett underlines what appears to be a change in the novel's course when Alexandra's sister, during a dinner party's literary discussion, declares to her skeptical male companions: “‘You like tales of adventure, in which the hero truly explores that wide world. But the novel is about tyranny, really; the tyranny of family and circumstances, and how one survives when running away isn't an option. Which it never is for women like us.’”
Yet tyranny and survival have already ruled the first half of The Voyage of the Narwhal, as they will the second, and adventure will observe no boundary of geography or gender. Barrett quickly weaves an artful narrative web of a family dividing against itself, the usurpation of a home, an act of scientific barbarism, kidnapping and sorcery, as well as a love story. At the center of it all is Zeke's miraculous return to Philadelphia with two Inuit in tow and his dreams of glory intact. Now his and Erasmus' divergent moral paths must play themselves out.
Throughout The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett portrays magnificently the austere majesty of the arctic while conducting her own exploration of her characters' inner landscapes and the intimate fit of scientific and personal passion. Building on the achievement of Ship Fever, she has created a meticulously researched historical novel that breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel that is also a critique of adventure novels, and a genuine page-turner that long lingers in the mind.
SOURCE: “Winters of Discontent,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 3, December, 1998, p. 8.
[In the following review, Anshaw commends Barrett's scrupulous research and use of detail in The Voyage of the Narwhal.]
At first blush, The Voyage of the Narwhal might seem an odd book for consideration in The Women's Review, concerning itself as it does mainly with men—moreover, men in acutely manly postures, engaged in the rugged heroics and privations of Arctic exploration. But Andrea Barrett is up to quite a bit more than an adventure saga. Like an iceberg, the bulk of her story lies in the vast dark stillness beneath its surface. Ultimately, the novel emerges into a tale of the vainglorious beginnings of the modern, the Western, the scientific—traditions we now so comfortably inhabit that we seldom give thought to what might have gotten pushed aside in the process of obtaining this questionably higher ground.
The novel's protagonist, Erasmus Wells, is a quiet, modest man, a scholar and naturalist, his profitless vocation fostered by family money.
He was forty years old and had a history of failure; he'd sailed, when hardly more than a boy, on a voyage so thwarted it became a national joke. Since then his life's work had come to almost nothing. No wife, no children, no truly close friends; a sister in a difficult situation. What he had now was this pile of goods, and a second chance.
The pile of goods are all the supplies that will fit into a small ship, the chance is a new voyage, led by Zeke Voorhees, a friend who is now also engaged to Erasmus' sister, Lavinia. Zeke's ship, the Narwhal, with fifteen men aboard, sets sail from Philadelphia in June of 1855. Its ostensible mission is to find who- or whatever might remain of an ill-fated expedition launched ten years earlier to chart the seas off Greenland. Led by an Englishman, John Franklin (a real historical figure, as are many peppering the backdrop of the story), two ships with full crews and equipment that included—in the whimsical manner of the day—a library of 1,200 books and a hand organ that played fifty tunes had left in the spring, then disappeared by the end of that summer.
Tracking Franklin is only one part of the Narwhal's business; there are other agendas among those on board. Erasmus hopes to gather more specimens of wildlife to catalogue later at the Repository on his father's estate. Zeke longs for the fame that has greeted other explorers upon their return. By now, exploration has become a lively sideshow, providing entertainment for a vast audience of armchair travelers. Erasmus sorrowfully notes that his sister Lavinia has friends like this, “for whom Darwin's Tierra del Fuego and Cook's Tahiti had merged with Parry's Igloolik and d'Urville's Antarctica until a place arose in which ice cliffs coexisted with acres of pampas, through which Tongan savages chased ostriches chasing camels.” Zeke also has the primal male urge to mark, in his case to put his name on land and water still unnamed (at least by white men).
The voyage, of course, goes terribly wrong. Minor ailments give over to more serious ones. Personalities begin to abrade one other. Supplies dwindle. Zeke turns out to be a young man possessed by a demon of ego. Determined to prove the existence of an open polar sea that he might put his name on, and to do so before another expedition beats him there, he forces the remaining crew to stay over through an arctic winter, huddled within the hold of their ship, through days when the only semblance of light is a red glow at noon. Crew members start dying off, morale is nil. When the weather becomes more clement, instead of taking his men and ship back. Zeke—unable to muster any volunteers to accompany him—disappears into the short polar summer to scout for his open sea.
When the others can wait for him no longer lest they be forced through a second winter, which they will surely not survive, Erasmus abandons the Narwhal, still stuck in ice, and brings back what's left of the crew—“ten men in a whaleboat made for six.” Along their impossibly hard way out, they lost valuable specimens and proofs of all they've found. Also lost to the elements are the young cook's nose and all of Erasmus' toes.
While these explorers have been discovering what has already been discovered—by competing explorers, by whalers before them and by the “Esquimaux” before that—while they are losing their ships and shipmates, their noses and toes, losing and becoming lost, all this while their women wait at home. Waiting is what women of this class and time do. Back in Philadelphia, Lavinia has waited agitatedly for her brother, and for Zeke. Waiting with her has been a paid companion, Alexandra Copeland, who, to while away the long hours, also to make money, takes up botanical drawing, an interest that shapes a hesitant connection between her and Erasmus—who has returned to an angry sister, an indifferent scientific community, a press critical of him for abandoning Zeke, and a public absorbed in the fabulous findings of Dr. Kane, whose expedition to the same area returned while the Narwhal was still away.
Then, a few months later, Zeke, all but given up for dead, returns, bringing with him an Esquimaux woman and her son, whose people guided him out of the arctic. In Zeke fashion, he has “named” them Annie and Tom. Quickly shifted from friends to actors in Zeke's roadshow, prompted to demonstrate native crafts and games, their humanity disappears in the transition. They become ill with a treacherous fever and are left to languish while Zeke is pre-occupied with marrying Lavinia and being famous and insinuating himself into the new Smithsonian. Erasmus has been shut out, can do little to save them. When Annie dies Erasmus inquires about her burial. His brother tells him:
There was no burial. … No body, even. There are men at the Smithsonian who—who do this sort of thing. I don't know how. I don't want to know how. I think the man Zeke was staying with gave him his permission and he, they, someone prepared and mounted her skeleton for the museum. Zeke stayed to oversee it.
In the end, Erasmus and Alexandra, who have become lovers, steal away to the great North, their mission not to explore, but simply to bring Tom home. Here and there, Barrett softly passes the narration to the boy, whose angle of vision on the white man's folly is quietly chilling. “His people had a name for Zeke,” we are told, “a chain of soft syllables that meant The One Who Is Trouble.”
For all involved, this journey shapes itself as release and freedom. For Tom, who belongs to the North. For Erasmus, who, out of his failure to capture the arctic, finds that he doesn't need to own or discover or name it, only to experience it. For Alexandra, who has been sitting on a sofa in front of a fire most of her adulthood. For her now, “every moment she felt as if she were inventing her life.”
Although this is a book of larger ideas and reverberating themes, it is also a delight in its thousand details—the supplies of ships (plum puddings, brandy, heaps of hand-knitted socks, hundreds of pounds of pemmican, knives and needles to barter with the Esquimaux), the hospitality of the Esquimaux women, who reach out with tattooed hands to offer musk-ox horn tea and boiled caribou, the medical treatments for maladies of the day (tartar emetic, mercurous chloride, syrup of squill, tincture of opium). Barrett's vast research yields up quite astonishing moments, such as the one in which Erasmus and Dr. Boerhaave, the great friend he makes on the voyage, deprived for too long of fresh meat, retrieve stored caribou skins and squeeze small scars on their surface to bring forth larval grubs of the warble flies that stung the caribou while they lived; the two friends pop the grubs into their mouths and agree—not bad at all.
Barrett (whose previous book, the story collection Ship Fever, won the National Book Award) has created a fiction that contains, like the hold of a ship, many truths, both large and small. Perhaps the most central is couched in an entry in the journal of Dr. Boerhaave:
… there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals … than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.
SOURCE: “Navigating a Sea of Adventure: Author Uses Contemporary Voice to Relate Novel's Tale of Arctic Explorers,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 7, 1998, p. E3.
[In the following review, Martelle explores the major thematic concerns of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal.]
As a child growing up on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, Andrea Barrett was mesmerized by the memoirs of 19th century arctic explorers, with their tales of adventurous sea voyages through ice-choked passages, disastrous shipwrecks and “wintering over” on the killing ice pack.
Time slowly eroded the details of those stories from her memory, though, as Barrett grew up and stepped into adult life. College. Marriage. Dislocation from Cape Cod to western Massachusetts then to Rochester, N.Y., where she slipped into daily clouds of solitude to focus on her own writing, her own tales of personal, rather than polar, exploration.
Yet it was fiction writing that brought the details of those old explorers' tales rushing back in a flood tide. A few years ago, Barrett was researching her 1996 National Book Award-winning collection of fiction. Ship Fever, (Norton), the title story exploring the harsh welcome Canadians gave to disease-ridden Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in 1845–48.
“[The stories] popped up again partly as a result of reading about Irish immigrant ships that had left late in the season and been sunk by ice floes from Baffin Bay,” Barrett says by telephone from her home in Rochester. “A minor character from Ship Fever, Ned Kynd, disappears from the [story]. I had wanted to write more about him than I could in the novella, without spoiling that story.”
The result is The Voyage of the Narwhal, a novel about the very real efforts to find the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, in which 129 men perished in the 1840s while searching out the Northwest Passage across northern Canada.
It's an intriguing novel, reflecting the realism that dominated 19th century fiction yet told in a purely contemporary voice and in cinematic detail. It would work wonderfully as a movie, in fact, with its mix of romance and adventure and its reclamation of a forgotten past.
While the moving force of the plot is the attempt to find Franklin's expedition, and the secret plan by expedition leader Zechariah “Zeke” Voorhees to explore the Polar Sea, Barrett focuses most of her writing on the relationships among her characters as they struggle with guilt and recriminations, loyalty and the bond of family.
As it turns out, Ned Kynd, in Barrett's hands a classic survivor, becomes relegated to minor status once again, serving as ship's cook, while Erasmus Darwin Wells, a frustrated naturalist, and Zeke take over the story.
The two men are bound by history, and family. As a boy, Zeke spent much of his time at the Wells home, hearing tales of adventures and explorations related by Erasmus' father, an avid naturalist and publisher. As a man, Zeke becomes engaged to Lavinia, the sister of Erasmus, himself a star-crossed naturalist whose one shot at fame dissolved in the aftermath of a disastrous trip.
Zeke, driven by the egocentric need to have his name etched on maps, enlists Erasmus to help with his journey ostensibly to find Franklin. Once they're at sea, though, Erasmus begins to understand Zeke—thoroughly dislikable in his arrogant incompetence—in ways that he never had before.
“Their relationship is everything, and I really didn't understand that when I started the book,” Barrett says. “I think for them to be such firm antagonists, and for me to bring Zeke to life as somebody real important to Erasmus, someone he had to push against, really shaped the book more than I understood when I started.”
There's much more to the book, though. Barrett also explores what has become a familiar topic for her—the difficult history of women and science. It hints at her own torn impulses.
“These are two things I really love—writing and science,” says Barrett, whose husband teaches biophysics at the University of Rochester. “I have wanted to be a scientist, and I studied science when I was young. I'm married to a scientist. A lot of my friends are scientists. People other than me would have figured out long ago that it was a natural subject matter for my fiction.
“I didn't see that. It took me so long to learn to write, to just get the basics of fiction under my belt, that I was correspondingly slow to see that the thing I wanted to use those techniques for was the history of science.”
Her first novel, Lucid Stars (Dell, 1988), uses astronomy as a touchstone, almost a language of reconciliation, between the mother and daughter whose troubled relationship lies at the center of the book. Ship Fever expands the theme to the frustrations of intelligent and curious women relegated to the scientific sidelines during the 1800s—a time when the natural sciences, from theories of evolution to cataloging, were coming alive. Charles Darwin had already made his famous voyage on the Beagle, but his Origins of the Species wouldn't be published until 1859.
In The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett's sixth book, the theme flowers in the form of Alexandra Copeland. Hired as a companion for Lavinia in Philadelphia while her brother and fiancé sail north—a trip that covers roughly the first two-thirds of the book—Alexandra yearns for the adventures and experiences Erasmus pursues.
“If Alexandra lived now, she would be cruising the Arctic by herself, or going into space,” Barrett says. “But those were not options available to a woman like her then:”
There were women explorers, Barrett says, but they hailed mostly from wealthy families in which the men set the tone as explorers and scientists. Most women were shut off from that life, as they were from most other possible outlets for creativity, imagination and ambition.
Barrett writes with a voice of quiet confidence, the payoff of diligent research that brought her back in touch with those old explorers' tales from her youth. Ersatz travelogues, the books—including some by Franklin before his ill-fated final voyage—were public renderings of explorers diaries.
Though the authors are little known to us now, the books were the publishing rage of the time, some of them selling hundreds of thousands of copies and helping define for the unadventurous the outer limits of a world they could barely imagine.
But rereading those old adventure stories wasn't enough for Barrett. She spent two weeks last summer camping at the edge of the ice pack on the north shore of Baffin Island, seeing for herself what the explorers had seen, and trying to capture the natural scenery in sketches, as did the naturalists of the 1850s.
“I had done about six drafts of the novel by then and had two more to go,” Barrett says. “I went thinking I knew what it looked like, after all that reading, and I would just be confirming. But I was wrong about tons of things. It was just a remarkable landscape.”
The experience helped her write in striking detail about the physicality of the place.
“The wind grew fierce again,” Barrett writes, describing efforts by the crew of the Narwhal to cut a safe docking space on the leeward side of “land-fast” ice as a gale strengthened around them. “Above them a glacier poured between two cliffs crowded with nesting murres: black rock streaked with streams of droppings; the clean white river of ice; more soiled rock secreting waves of ammonia and an astonishing squawking noise.”
The visit also firmed Barrett's descriptions of efforts by Erasmus, Alexandra and Erasmus' brother, Copernicus, a landscape painter, to capture the Arctic using Erasmus' sketches and memory.
“When I first wrote those parts of the book, they meant one thing,” Barrett says. “After I tried to do it myself, it meant a whole lot of other things. I was able to get a clear sense of what Erasmus was struggling to describe in words, just trying to wrestle with something that is bigger than yourself, that is hard to describe, and combined people in this shared effort.”
Barrett's not ready to leave that era yet. Nor, for that matter, is she done with Ned Kynd, the bit character now in two of her works.
Barrett's in the early stages of a story that follows Kynd to the lumber camps of the Adirondacks in the 1850s, where Barrett has left him at the end of The Voyage of the Narwhal.
“I don't know where I'm going with it,” Barrett says. “The more I learn about [that era], the more I get drawn into it. Everything was happening. Everybody was learning about everything, and everything was being named. Evolution was in the air. Ideas of geology, embryology, all of science was coming together in just this huge radiating intense explosion.
“But the world of science was still small enough that people could be involved in a lot of different fields, in ways that they can't anymore. That really was the last time you could be a naturalist in the largest sense.”
As Barrett talks, it becomes clear that she's likely going to leave Ned Kynd behind again, consigning him, Zelig-like, to be a recurring sacrifice to her compelling art of science.
SOURCE: “A Name on the Map,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1999, p. 24.
[In the following review, Walters commends Barrett's convincing portrayal of the “intellectual universe of the mid-nineteenth-century naturalist” in The Voyage of the Narwhal.]
Erasmus Darwin Wells is the unlikely hero of Andrea Barrett's impressive new novel The Voyage of the Narwhal. Already middle-aged, he is diffident, prickly and introspective, and convinced, at least in his frequent moments of depression, that he is a failure. He lives quietly in his family home in Philadelphia, with plenty of money, but “no wife, no children, no truly close friends,” and no real work. His beloved brother Copernicus, a landscape painter, is somewhere out west, and his unmarried sister Lavinia—attended by a hired companion, Alexandra—is nervous, bored and unhappy. Erasmus passes his time in desultory study, sorting his dead father's enormous collection of scientific curiosities. He often thinks back to his one adventure: an expedition to the Antarctic in 1840. It had proved disappointing: “on a shabby, poorly equipped ship, Erasmus and the sailors had nearly frozen to death.” When they returned to America, there was little public interest in the specimens they had gathered, and the expedition leader jealously blocked publication of this colleagues' work.
Erasmus is miraculously offered a second chance by the young and glamorous Zeke (Zechariah) Voorhees. He is an old family acquaintance; Lavinia is yearningly, despairingly, in love with him and so, in his own way, is Erasmus. Zeke offers him his dream: to join the Narwhal on an expedition in 1855 into Arctic waters, partly for scientific research, partly to hunt for traces of Sir John Franklin, whose ship had disappeared en route to the mythical North-West Passage. The novel alternates between the restricted days of the Philadelphian women, and the routines—perhaps equally confined—of the men on the Narwhal. At home, Lavinia dreams about Zeke, while her companion, Alexandra, eager for wider horizons, at least manages to find enjoyable work: at first simply colouring engravings for a book on entomology, later, having mastered the craft of engraving, working for a publisher of books on exploration. In the far north, the explorers are crammed uncomfortably on the tiny, fragile ship. Erasmus, tentatively, but with increasing confidence and pleasure, makes a real friend for perhaps the first time in his life. His conversations with Doctor Boerhaave, a zoologist from Gothenberg, educated in Edinburgh, so deeply absorb him that for a long time, he misses the early signs of Zeke's instability and ruthless ambition, his readiness to put everyone else at risk because, “I want my name on the map.”
Andrea Barrett re-creates the intellectual universe of the mid-nineteenth-century naturalist as brilliantly, as convincingly, as she conjures up the heart-breaking northern landscape with its “simultaneous sparseness and richness,” its treacherous, killing beauty. Her writing is at once erudite and evocative, dense with period and geographical detail. She suggests, wonderfully, Erasmus's naive intellectual enthusiasm, the yearning to believe in someone that seems answered by Zeke. Dr Boerhaave, however, is suspicious of Zeke almost from the start; he is “only aware of his own thoughts and fantasies: a boy still, for all his bulk and bluster.” He notes how the crew shift from enthusiasm (they share Zeke's curiosity about chance-met Esquimaux) to anger when Zeke tempts fate by stealing mummified a bodies from Esquimaux graves. Zeke, of course, dismisses the crew's uneasiness as mere superstition, just as he brushes aside cautions from Erasmus.
The most riveting chapters in the novel detail the careful routines which the men design to ensure survival as the cold sets in, the way they fend off nightmares by telling stories, contriving entertainments, sharing skills, drinking the alcohol used for preserving specimens, or simply by gossiping about past and future. But after Zeke, knowingly and without consultation, maroons the ship for the winter, their situation becomes desperate. The men succumb, one by one, to cold, claustrophobia and illness. The thoughtful Dr Boerhaave is one of the first fatalities of Zeke's casual cruelty. When the grieving Erasmus questions Zeke's indifferent sacrifice of his men, he is branded a traitor. As spring comes, he reluctantly accepts that role; he assumes charge of the Narwhal, and heads for home, leaving Zeke alone, wilfully heading north, presumably towards death.
The last third of the book, perhaps inevitably after this high drama, seems anticlimactic. Erasmus—permanently crippled by his Arctic experiences, and mourning the loss of so many friends, so many dreams—struggles to write up the journals that he and Dr Boerhaave hand kept; he gradually becomes closer to Alexandra. Then the monstrous Zeke reappears, accompanied by an Esquimau woman and child, prize specimens for his barnstorming showman's tour of the country. Erasmus—in an ending that is contrived, but also very moving—finally decides what is really important in his life.
SOURCE: “The Search for Sir John,” in Spectator, March 6, 1999, pp. 39–40.
[In the following review, Taylor offers a positive assessment of The Voyage of the Narwhal, calling the novel “half a boy's adventure story of the highest class, half a kind of meditation on the nature of human curiosity.”]
The hunt for John Franklin was one of the great early Victorian obsessions, inflaming public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to a mound of books and articles and bringing a raft of supplementary tragedies in its wake. Sir John, who had fought at Trafalgar as a 17-year-old, set out with his ships Erebus and Terror in search of the North-West passage in 1845. He never came back, and though the first rescue missions were sent out two years later, it was not until 1850 that news of the expedition's fate trickled back to civilisation. Later, as further attempts were made to track down the bodies and the air grew dense with controversy (in particular a debate over whether the last remnants of the crew had resorted to cannibalism) the Franklin saga became a staple of the news-stands. As late as 1860, for example, one of the selling points of the first number of the Cornhill Magazine was an article by A. W. Young on ‘The Search for Sir John Franklin.’
Set in the years 1855–6, in a world enraptured by the exploits of Franklin fanatics such as John Rae (who had brought back the first Eskimo stories of human remains found in kettles) and Dr Kane, The Voyage of the Narwhal describes a fictitious excursion through the ice-floes of Baffin Bay and Smith Sound. Ominously, the personalities on whom the plot turns are linked by more than simple interest in Arctic exploration: Zeke, the flamboyant 26-year-old leader, seduced by the notion of fame and cartographic tribute (‘I want my name on something, something big—is that so hard to understand?’) is booked to marry the sister of the ship's naturalist on their return. From the outset this gives their relations a faint air of unease. Hunkering down over his specimens, making friends with the civilised medic Dr Boerhaave, Erasmus Wells—a disillusioned veteran of an earlier voyage—regards his prospective brother-in-law with a mixture of admiration and wariness.
The wariness is well-founded. The original plan of Zeke and his 14-strong crew was to head home before the onset of the Arctic winter. On the way back, however, with the mission apparently accomplished (eyewitness accounts of corpses courtesy of the locals, a handful of Franklin artefacts) it all goes wrong when Zeke decides they should make a detour northwards in search of what would be the geographical find of the century: an unfrozen polar sea. Winter then sets in and the ship freezes up (this confirms Erasmus's suspicion that Zeke had secretly planned their entombment in the ice). Casualties include poor Dr Boerhaave, thus destroying Erasmus's vision of a placid, post-excursion friendship. Come the summer, as the ice cracks and the route home lies open, Zeke takes off on his own (no one else will go with him) for a final recce and fails to return, leaving Erasmus to make the unenviable decision to set off without him. The Franklin evidence is lost en route, along with Erasmus's specimens and most of his frostbitten toes. Amid accusation of betrayal and incompetence they arrive home to a public relations disaster.
To reveal what happens in the final third of the book would be unfair both to the reader and to the intricacies of Andrea Barrett's design. Similarly, summaries of this kind would altogether fail to do justice to the novel's other strands—in particular, the group psychology of the winter stake-out, and what the womenfolk are up to back home. If the result carries a faint drawback or two it is perhaps that the clued-up reader may find some of the material vaguely familiar (much of it is covered in Francis Spufford's excellent ‘I May Be Some Time’: Ice and the English Imagination, 1996). Certain of the scientific conversations enjoyed by Erasmus and Boerhaave, too, employ a suspiciously up-to-date vocabulary. These are minor blemishes, though, and Barrett's account of these grapplings with mighty elementals is worthy of Jack London. Half a boy's adventure story of the highest class, half a kind of meditation on the nature of human curiosity, The Voyage of the Narwhal is wonderful stuff. In case anyone should think this is a conventional reviewer's bromide, the harassed bookman's sigh of relief at having found something halfway readable, I ought to say that the first thing I did on finishing it was to sit down and start again.
SOURCE: “Victorian Voyages and Other Mind Trips,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 167–72.
[In the following excerpt, Balée offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Voyage of the Narwhal.]
A fascination with all things Victorian continues in fiction as well as in film. Clearly, some aspect of nineteenth-century culture is intersecting with our twentieth-century Weltanschauung and we are drawn back to this particular past. I think one of the main points of connection concerns an obsessive quest for knowledge, no matter how dangerous. The intellectual imperialism that dominated Europe and America through much of the nineteenth-century has risen with new intensity in the age of the Internet. Now, as then, it's a tangled web we weave.
Certainly, the thirst for knowledge and the control of that knowledge is the theme that animates my favorite novel of the last year, Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal. This novel tracks a fictional voyage to the Arctic to discover an open polar sea. It's fiction, but it's studded with facts. Barrett has her nineteenth-century idioms down and her characters are believably Victorian. Nevertheless, they are also helping her to develop a subtext about how history is written and about the interpretive dilemma posed every writer—of history or anything else. The main narrator of Voyage, a fictional naturalist from Philadelphia named Erasmus Darwin Wells, pinpoints—in his journal—the impossibility of making words represent experiences.
That old problem of trying to show things both sequentially, and simultaneously. If I drew that scene I'd show everything happening all at once, everyone present and every place visible, from the bottom of the river to the clouds. But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything's shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice.
Barrett does her best to deal with this shortcoming of language by having the novel told from a variety of viewpoints, using journals as well as interior monologues, male as well as female voices, and American, European, and Esquimaux perspectives. Her cleverness in orchestrating the scenes makes this novel a marvel—she is equally good at pacing her plot, developing her characters, and weaving through the whole a very interesting meditation on the complicated interplay of history, fiction, truth, and memory.
Historically, we learn a great deal about John Franklin's ill-fated voyage to the Arctic in 1845. Franklin simply vanished, and the party led by Dr. Kane that tried to find him in 1851 found only the tombs of three of Franklin's seamen and disturbing evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism before they'd starved to death. We also learn a fair amount about Arctic geography, the history of Greenland and the Esquimaux (the French form of the Alonquin name for these natives, meaning “raw meat eaters”), the state of women, museums, and Transcendentalism in 1850s America. It's a most pleasant way to pick up a little history, as long as one can discern between the history and the fiction.
For the fiction, you see, prospers up apace with the history, and sometimes it's hard to tell the one from the other. Erasmus D. Wells, for example, is not a real person, though John Franklin was. Nor are Erasmus' experiences real, though they sound as if they might have been. In fact, the only narrator whose thoughts do not sound appropriately Victorian are those of Erasmus' love interest, Alexandra Copeland. She and her sisters sound far more like post-Friedan feminists than mid-nineteenth-century spinsters.
Commenting on a contemporary novel in which the heroine is given a mahogany desk, Alexandra's abolitionist sister Emily says, “Men make fun of [this book], I know you all do. You like tales of adventure. … But the novel is about tyranny, really; the tyranny of family and circumstances, and how one survives when running away isn't an option. Which it never is for women like us.” This is the comment of a twentieth-century feminist contemplating the lives of Victorian women; it's not a statement any Victorian woman would have expressed with such conviction, such measured judgment. Certainly the intelligent and introspective Victorian woman sometimes felt trapped in her domestic sphere, but hers would have been an inchoate dissatisfaction, nothing as clear as the twentieth-century hindsight of the above statement.
On the contrary, the public statements of the early suffragettes reveal that they didn't think in terms of surviving or running away—they thought about achieving the vote, gaining access to quality education, ultimately finding professional—as opposed to domestic—work. And almost all of them, if polled, would have preferred marriage to a career.
But this momentary lapse in historical veracity is a mere quibble about an otherwise fine novel. No one can escape her historical moment entirely, but Andrea Barrett has done it better than any other novelist whose work I've read for this fiction chronicle.
SOURCE: “Missing the Boat,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1999, p. 21.
[In the following negative review, Hines notes that Barrett is a skilled writer, but faults the stories in Ship Fever for lacking emotional power and depth.]
In a recent interview, Andrea Barrett said she thought she had been born in the wrong century—that she would have been a better nineteenth-century naturalist than the biologist she was trained as; and certainly the omnivorous passions of the naturalist/collector inform and drive this collection of eight short stories Ship Fever which won this year's American National Book Award. In each tale, the characters' relationship with science differs; in some, they pose in the foreground against it; while in others, notably “Birds with No Feet,” science itself seems to be the protagonist, conducting an experiment using human ingredients.
In “The Behaviour of the Hawkweeds,” a woman lures a biologist into marriage, using a letter her grandfather obtained from Mendel, the botanist who developed the theory of genetic inheritance. The letter, appropriately, functions as a means of insuring the perpetuation of her genes. In “The Littoral Zone,” two zoologists on a field trip join adultery's ever-welcoming phylum, and this leads to the breakdown of both their marriages.
Other pieces view science in a more determinist mode. In “Soroche,” a woman on holiday in the Andes falls ill with (significantly) altitude sickness and is attended by a doctor who penetrates her discomfort to reveal the underlying cause: her working-class background is in conflict with her marriage to a wealthy man. When the husband dies, she is drawn to a fatalistic course like iron filings under the compulsion of some Mendelian magnet.
This theme of the imperatives of origins is taken up again in “The Marburg Sisters.” Two girls, brought up after their mother's death by an uncommunicative wine-producing father, find their only contact with him through his knowledge of the biology of viticulture. This leads them both into science and graduate school, until one leaves to pursue a bohemian life. Later, a reconciliation and their father's death open memories that lead the scientist sister to abandon her professorship; then a Mendelian destiny drags her into the strictures of its inescapable diagrams. The device that doesn't work in this tale is the sisters' ability to communicate with their dead mother; the magical element, rubbing shoulders with so much hard science, strikes a false note and fails to convince. The title piece is a novella about immigrants fleeing the Irish potato famine, who arrive, in 1847, in Canada at the Grosse Isle Quarantine station on the St Lawrence. The ships arrive seething with typhus; 21,000 people died, either at sea or in the packed holds, under the flag of quarantine. Grosse Isle was overwhelmed, and the story traces the fate of a young Canadian doctor driven by work, a private vanity and a scientist's compulsion to understand the pathology of the disease.
Barrett is an intelligent, accomplished writer. All the stories in Ship Fever are well constructed, the prose assured, the characters credible; and the author's research functions unobtrusively but interestingly within the plots. It is the more vexing, therefore, that on another level the stories are not satisfying.
Except for the descriptions of the historical plight of dreadful conditions of the Irish immigrants, nothing in the book is likely to move or enlighten us. The unquantifiable notion of spiritual betterment might have a worthy, Victorian ring, but it is an idea that the author's nineteenth-century characters would have understood and approved. A short story can be like a scalpel bisecting a fruit in one swift motion; releasing the juice and colour of an unexpected truth. The resonance of that moment can last for years. Only short stories and poems are free to do that. It is a writer's touch on that exposed recognition that we remember. The stories which make up Ship Fever are a reminder that it is not enough that literature should inform, or offer lengths of elegant narrative; at its best, it should reach in, alter us, and reveal something to the heart.
SOURCE: “Grace under Pressure,” in Spectator, December 9, 2000, p. 44.
[In the following positive review, Taylor compliments Barrett's psychological insight in The Middle Kingdom.]
Although there is no information to this effect anywhere on its jacket, The Middle Kingdom is not a new book. First published as far back as 1991 in the USA, it follows close on the heels of The Voyage of the Narwhal (1999) and the short story collection Ship Fever—another reissue, as it turned out—which appeared at the very end of last year. The former propelled Miss Barrett if not into fiction's international premier league, then towards the upper end of its first division. In its wake, her publishers have quite reasonably set about milking the back catalogue.
The Voyage of the Narwhal was about 19th-century polar exploration. Ship Fever, though its title story recreated the early Victorian Irish emigrations westward, ranged through various historical periods. If anything united them it was an interest in natural science, sometimes used for metaphorical purposes, on other occasions simply to provide a backdrop for the foregrounded emotional lives. The current item's blurb reveals nothing other than that the author lives in Rochester, New York, but its professional setting—freshwater biology—allows one to make a fair guess at Andrea Barrett's previous career.
The Middle Kingdom opens dramatically in a Beijing torn apart by the Tiananmen Square massacres, with Grace Hoffmeier, its thirtysomething protagonist, cycling frantically around the smoke-strewn city with her two-year-old child strapped to her back, saying farewell to her Chinese friends and trying to fix a passage home. Several mysteries immediately cry out for solution; not only the obvious question of Grace's presence in a determinedly anti-Western environment, but the conundrum of her son's parentage. Jody, it is swiftly established, is half-Chinese.
Whereupon the novel backtracks to the triumphal academic progress made around mid-Eighties China by Grace's husband, Professor Walter Hoffmeier, and various adoring sidekicks, his fat, fretful and increasingly ill wife trailing in the rear. Anxious to discover something about the real China—whose essence has come to her courtesy of a benevolent old uncle who travelled there in the 1930s—Grace befriends a local woman academic, Dr Yu, meets her enticing and rebellious son Zaofan and, as far as one can make out, enjoys a literally delirious interlude with him before collapsing with bronchopneumonia.
Gradually, other fragments of Grace's early life are slotted into the mosaic: nervy girlhood, failed first marriage to a mad artist, the advent of cool, preoccupied and infertile Walter (the portrait of a self-obsessed academic is one of the best things in the book), a humiliating episode with one of her husband's research students. The goal being pursued, it soon turns out, is some kind of self-worth. The only person to have had an encouraging effect on Grace rather than merely squashing her talents is gay uncle Owen. Symbolically, it is his oriental antiques, lavishly displayed around the rooms, that give the houses Grace refurbishes their value.
The novel ends at a crisis point three years before its opening scene: back in Beijing with Grace making the decision to stay (Walter, meanwhile, is nicely fixed up with an enraptured English colleague). Perhaps predictably, comparison with The Voyage of the Narwhal is faintly injurious. The issues are all on the surface, the emotions a little yeastier. Even here in this early work, however, Barrett's psychological touch is well developed. There is a wonderful defining moment when Walter, showing Grace—at this point his student lodger—her room, ‘reached down and straightened the rose-print quilt on the bed, which was already perfectly taut.’ Similarly, Grace's central predicament—stuck in a loveless marriage with an old bore—is, for the most part, convincingly outlined.