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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 12th, 2002


Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

A review by Bruce Allen

In her latest collection of short stories Andrea Barrett continues a preoccupation with scientific themes adumbrated in her novels Lucid Stars (1988) and The Forms of Water (1993), one that didn't fully emerge until her National Book Award-winning collection Ship Fever (1996). That volume's carefully studied, densely detailed accounts of the romance and the trauma of scientific discovery displayed a mastery of the difficult art of organizing and communicating forbidding narrative material, which reached even more impressive heights in The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998), in effect a modern Victorian novel about a disastrous polar expedition and its complex human cost.

Most of the six stories in this new collection are explicitly related to these two earlier books. For example, Nora Kynd, an Irish immigrant who finds her vocation by caring for tubercular patients in the Adirondack Mountains ("The Cure"), is the sister of Ned Kynd, the ship's cook who survived the extremities suffered by the Narwhal's crew. Lavinia Wells, the mercurial and intellectually hungry narrator of "Theories of Rain," is the mother of the botanist Erasmus Darwin Wells, a voyager on the Narwhal and that novel's narrator. In fact, a reader familiar with the immediate predecessors of "Servants of the Map" gradually senses that Barrett is writing a huge serial novel, akin to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha cycle or Louise Erdrich's interconnected Native American novels, isolating diverse (nineteenth and twentieth century) and diversely questing characters and then painstakingly showing us how they are interrelated.

All these matters are recounted in an efficient prose. Though we might expect metaphors drawn from scientific techniques or natural processes, Barrett's figurative language, with which she is sparing, is more varied. Her crisp declarative sentences are usually bluntly informative (a "night-watcher" over moribund patients "was often the last to see someone alive"); occasionally they're veined with understated wry humor ("They made love in a dark museum attic, accompanied by the faint ticking of deathwatch beetles").

Such scrupulous reportorial and rhetorical attention blends exactitude and compassion, giving clarity and emotional force to Barrett's investigations of people seeking to understand the laws that govern and trouble both the visible universe and their own invariably distinctive bodies and minds.

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