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The Voyage of the Narwhalby Andrea Barrett
A New York Times Notable Book of 1998
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998
Synopses & Reviews
Since she received the 1996 National Book Award for Ship Fever and Other Stories, Andrea Barrett has been a recognized force in American letters, not only as a writer of lyrical, historical fiction, but also as a distinguished literary critic and essayist. In her fiction, Barrett is repeatedly drawn to the austerities of the nineteenth century. Just as the title story from Ship Fever tells one man's struggle to live through the horrors of an out-of-control typhus epidemic, The Voyage of the Narwhal portrays a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth-century romance with the Arctic. Erasmus Darwin Wells is a naturalist on board the Narwhal, which undertakes an expedition in search of a celebrated ship and crew previously lost in the Arctic. Through his eyes, the reader meets the Narwhal's crew and its obsessive, narcissistic commander; experiences the harsh beauty of the Arctic landscape; and encounters the northern culture of the indigenous Esquimaux. But, when the hubris and ambition of the Narwhal's commander leads the expedition to near disaster, and later to a surreal series of injustices, Erasmus must also learn the hard realities of human greed and gullibility, as well as the rewards that come, eventually, to those with true heart. Farley, Powells.com
From the author of the 1996 National Book Award Winner Ship Fever.
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic, Andrea Barrett focuses on a particular expedition and its accompanying scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells. Through his eyes, we meet the Narwhal's crew and its commander — obsessed with the search for an open polar sea — and encounter the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we see the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery. And finally they discover — as all explorers do — not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.
"A meticulously researched and 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 lingers in the mind." Chicago Tribune
"Authoritative and imaginative on all fronts, Barrett tells a gripping story shaped by masterful interpretations of the paradigms of science and the volatile nature of the mind, a wilderness every bit as challenging as the forbidding Arctic." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"[A] richly researched fictional tale....Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett...masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism." Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly
"Powerful....[T]he story's extreme conditions and harrowing experiences, which make for such gripping reading, are actually moral and spiritual tests that strip away the characters' public masks and expose their innermost drives and fears." The New York Times
"Stunning....A meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance....The extremes of both human behavior and nature...are described with an accuracy that make one forget that this is not a memoir but a work of the imagination." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"While we ache for Erasmus to notice his own opportunities for love and for heroism, we get to luxuriate in the promise of retribution and in finely calibrated, persuasive prose." The New Yorker
"Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic voyage...is, simply, one of the best novels of the decade....[She writes in] a flexible, lucid prose that effortlessly communicates detailed information about navigation, natural history, and several related disciplines....The intellectual range exhibited by this magnificent novel places its author in the rarefied company of great contemporary encyclopedic writers like Pynchon, Gaddis, and Harry Mulisch." Kirkus Reviews
"[Barrett's] Voyage is a brilliant reversal of Heart of Darkness: the danger is not that the characters will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before." Thomas Mallon
"No sooner do we bemoan the dearth of ambitious American women novelists of ideas than Andrea Barrett delivers this grand, intelligent, wide-ranging work. With elegance and economy, she's pulled off a seemingly impossible feat: critiquing the complacent authority of the 19th century novel in a book that's just as much fun to read as an old-fashioned Victorian opus." Salon, "Our Favorite Books of 1998"
"A luminous work of historical fiction that explores the far reaches of the Arctic and of men's souls."--
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic, Andrea Barrett focuses on a particular expedition and its accompanying scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells. Through his eyes, we meet the Narwhal's crew and its commander--obsessed with the search for an open polar sea--and encounter the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we see the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery. And finally they discover--as all explorers do--not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.
About the Author
Andrea Barrett, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction (1996) for Ship Fever, has also received a Mac Arthur "genius" grant, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and an honorary degree from Union College. She teaches in the MFA program for writers at the Warren Wilson College. The author of four previous novels, Barrett lives in Rochester, New York.
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