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
Synopses & Reviews
Part adventure narrative, part love story, this unforgettable novel captures a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth-century romance with the mystery of the Arctic. Combining fact and fiction, Andrea Barrett focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a scholar-naturalist accompanying the expedition of the Narwhal. Through his eyes we meet the various crew members and the expedition's blustery commander, obsessed with the search for an open polar sea. And through his eyes we experience the wild, disturbing beauties of that last unexplored region.
In counterpoint to his views are those of the Esquimaux, witness to the expedition's exploits, and of the women left behind in Philadelphia, who can only imagine what lies beyond the north wind. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and history. In the real nineteenth-century expeditions, explorers' documents always cast the writer as hero. But what really happened up there, in the long winter darkness, entrapped in ice?
On the Narwhal, everyone is frightened, nothing is certain, and heroes emerge in unexpected guises. Barrett's explorers discover -- as all explorers do -- not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.
"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"
"[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."