In the stories of her 1996 National Book Award-winning collection,
Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett explored the human passions at work behind a dazzling array of scientific endeavors. Now, in The Voyage Of The Narwhal, Barrett has enlarged upon that theme to create an extraordinary chronicle of 19th-century Arctic exploration, an intellectually and emotionally satisfying tale of adventure, ambition, tragedy, and redemption that transports the reader from the sitting rooms of 19th-century Philadelphia to the uncharted reaches of the frozen North and back again.
The year is 1855, a time when "Arctic hysteria," engendered by the published accounts of explorers such as John Rae, Charles Wilkes, John Richardson, and Elisha Kent Kane, has captured the popular imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. The largest and most elaborately provisioned Arctic expedition, led by Sir John Franklin of England, has disappeared without a trace, and the fate of Franklin, his two ships, and 500-man crew has become an international concern. Rescue parties have been hastily organized, only to go missing themselves.
Barrett's protagonist is the introspective Erasmus Darwin Wells, son of a prosperous Philadelphia engraver and amateur naturalist. From an early age, Erasmus and his similarly monikered brothers, Copernicus, Linnaeus, and Humbolt, are encouraged to share in their father's scholarly enthusiasms. Thoroughly schooled in the scientific method, Erasmus often puzzles over his father's fondness for Pliny the Elder's highly subjective record of the divergent races of man:
On summer evenings, down by the creek, Mr. Wells had read Pliny's Natural History to his sons. Pliny the Elder had died of his scientific curiosity, he'd said; the fumes of Vesuvius had choked him when he'd lingered to watch the smoke and lava. But before that he'd compiled a remarkable collection of what he'd believed to be facts. Some true, some false -- but even the false still useful for the beauty with which they were expressed, and for what they said about the ways men conceived of each other, and of the world.
Erasmus gradually comes to understand that through these stories "in which truth and falsehood are mingled like the minerals in granite," he has been "taught to understand that anything you can imagine is possible."
As a young man, Erasmus joins Charles Wilkes's South-Sea Exploring Expedition as a "scientific." But the disastrous three-year voyage and Wilkes's subsequent court-martial tinge Erasmus's professional career and private life with the indelible mark of failure. Now, at the age of 40, he once again finds himself playing a supporting role to another man's vaulting ambitions. Zechariah Voorhees, a longtime friend of the Wells family who is betrothed to Erasmus's sister, Lavinia, is the latest to mount an expedition to learn Franklin's fate. At Lavinia's urging, Erasmus masters his reluctance to join a mission that by right of age and experience he should command, and accepts a commission as Zeke's right-hand man.
After months of careful planning and provisioning, the
Narwhal and its 15-man crew embarks from Philadelphia in June. During the weeks at sea, Erasmus cultivates a rare friendship with the ship's Swedish surgeon, Dr. Boerhaeve. Though Boerhaeve is an admirer of Thoreau and espouses the curious creationist views of Louis Agassis, and Erasmus, true to his namesake, is a staunch Darwinist, the two lifelong bachelors recognize each other as intellectual equals who share the desire to better understand the world through exploration. With each new landfall, the two scientists hastily collect and classify specimens of flora and fauna, until they guiltily begin to wish that the expedition's objective could be abandoned in favor of observing this "amazing place and its creatures."
As the brief Arctic summer draws to a close without any sign of Franklin or his men, tension mounts between Zeke, the ship's officers, and the crew. The accidental death of one of the men delays the departure of the
Narwhal long enough for relics of the Franklin expedition to be found among a nearby tribe of Esquimaux, and Zeke arrogantly proclaims the "hand of God" in the discoveries. Privately, Erasmus and Boerhaeve are less eager to accept the death of a comrade as evidence of divine intervention. Moreover, the Narwhal now finds her homeward path blocked by ice at every turn, and the crew is forced to prepare to winter over.
During the cramped confinement of the long, dark Arctic winter, scurvy, depression, and the incremental breakdown of the chain of command take their toll. One by one, crew members are sacrificed to Zeke's megalomaniacal ambition to put his name on the map; not even the good Dr. Boerhaeve is spared. The tragically unnecessary death of his first and only friend at last awakens Erasmus to his duty to the men of the expedition, and when Zeke marches off alone in search of the inland polar sea rumored to lie beyond the ice pack and fails to return, Erasmus reluctantly abandons the icebound ship and leads the crew to safety. On the voyage home, Erasmus, crippled by frostbite and devastated by the loss of the
Narwhal's discoveries, overhears a whaling captain contemptuously refer to his breed of gentleman explorers as ineffectual "discovery men." And in one of Dr. Boerhaeve's last journal entries, he finds a ghostly, eloquent echo of this rebuke: What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact, that 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, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is explain the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.
The doomed expedition is a compelling, multileveled story, yet the voyage itself is but a prelude to the moral drama still to unfold. Fully a third of the book takes place
after Erasmus returns to Philadelphia. Within the fabric of Zeke and Erasmus's tale, Barrett has woven the stories of the two women who await their return -- Lavinia, who measures her worth solely in relation to her love for Zeke, and her hired companion, Alexandra, who compares the narrow choices open to her with the opportunities afforded men, and muses, "Why can't my life be larger?" Alexandra's situation is reminiscent of Barrett's short story "Rare Bird," which portrays the smothering paternalism of the 18th century through the eyes and emotions of a fiercely intelligent amateur naturalist who, like the elusive swallows she studies, escapes captivity for more hospitable climes. Here, too, are the vividly imagined voices of the "uncivilized" Esquimaux who endure the clumsy intrusion of the kabloonas -- white men -- into their delicately ordered society, only to suffer captivity and humiliation in return for their hospitality.
The Voyage Of The Narwhal, Andrea Barrett portrays the breathless mood of a nation at odds with itself, distracted for a brief, glorious moment from the bitter rivalries that will soon erupt in a paroxysm of war. Her stunning synthesis of period historical detail and the natural sciences results in a voice that is at once passionate, lucid, and uniquely her own. Through the juxtaposition of stark contrasts and violent extremes, Barrett questions our expectations of the heroic and, ultimately, reaffirms our faith in the endurance of the human spirit.
It's been a long time since an American novel appeared that's as stately and
composed as Andrea Barrett's
The Voyage of the Narwhal, the fictional account of a 19th century Arctic expedition and its aftermath that doubles also as a meditation on the nature of adventure and the scientific mind. As a writer,
Barrett has long been concerned with the restless energies and interior conflicts that drive people to search for things not known before and, equally important, to capture what they find. In 1996, Barrett won the National Book Award for Ship
Fever, a collection of shorter pieces on "the love of science and the science of love." In The Voyage of the Narwhal, she has shaped a
compelling narrative around the golden age of Arctic exploration, written in the spirit, if not the length or the exact style, of a 19th century novel -- solid, unhurried, reflective and totally wedded to plot.
Barrett's story finds its impetus in one of the great enigmas of history, the disappearance of the
British explorer Sir John Franklin and all of his crew on a voyage to discover the Northwest Passage. In the 1850s, the case was an international cause célèbre, and the efforts to find Franklin and his party on subsequent excursions led to as many adventures and mishaps as originally befell Franklin. Newspapers and magazines went wild over the story. Franklin was a popular hero whose portrait hung in countless middle-class drawing rooms, and any man who
managed to find him would have been assured of fame and glory. Against this factual backdrop, Barrett has created Erasmus Darwin Wells, a Philadelphia naturalist whose previous explorations around the world have ended in shame and discredit, and Erasmus' protégé Zechariah Vorhees, called "Zeke," who is engaged to Erasmus' sister and who leads the Narwhal on a quest for Franklin through the Arctic. Zeke's goal, as Erasmus discovers to his
cost, is not just to find the Franklin party but to be the Man Who Did.
Erasmus has his own kind of glory in mind -- "northern sights to parallel," "discoveries in natural history that might prove extraordinarily important" -- but ego wins out in all directions.On the adventurers' return, the truth about what
happened on the Narwhal is the first and lasting casualty.
"Why is it so difficult to capture what was there?" Erasmus wonders. "I wish I could show it as
through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not
just my version of it. As if I weren't there." Barrett tells her story through multiple voices -- Erasmus, Zeke, their colleagues, the crew and the women waiting patiently at home -- but
Voyage of the Narwhal is her own creation, marvelously imagined and beautifully told. A first-rate novel and a welcome, old-fashioned read. -- Salon
Does. . .Ms. Barrett succeed in fulfilling her own large ambitions? . . .up to a point. . . .Only in the novel's final pages does drama give way to melodramatic contrivance. . . . fluent plotting gives way to increasingly contrived events. . .these events. . .do not tarnish Ms. Barrett's very real achievements . . .
The New York Times
. . .[A] powerful, brooding movel. . .moves like an advancing ice age.
Breathtaking. . . Andrea Barrett shows nearly total mastery of the craft of fiction. This beautiful book -- exquisetely written in every way -- is fully worthy of the massive, dangerous subject it undertakes.
Entirely through plot and character. . .the author shows how redemption is possible. . . .It takes Erasmus' voyage on the Narwhal. . .to lead him painfully to a more valuable inner voyage of discovery, and it's only toward the end that he begins to understand something of his own heart.
New York Times Book Review
Barrett's fifth book is a stunning novel that marries the meticulous detail and natural wonder of 19th century travelogue with a modern understanding of the genre. Winner of the 1996 National Book Award for Ship Fever, Barrett pokes subtle, cerebral fun at the arrogance of our ancestral adventurers, and depicts purportedly savage Eskimos as more sensitive than the barbaric heroes who "discoved" them. She exposes the dangers of recorded truths by framing her fictitious chapters with snippets of historical documents from the likes of the philosopher Erasmus and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Barrett infuses the manly myths of arctic adventure with human honesty.
Having honed her craft in four previous novels and the National Book Award winning short-story collection
Ship Fever, Barrett delivers a stunning novel in which 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.
In Philadelphia in 1855, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells -- 40, unmarried and gripped by a despondent realization that his life is a failure -- sees a last chance to make his reputation as he prepares to accompany his future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees, on a voyage to the arctic in search of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. At 26, Zeke bristles with charisma, and a megalomaniacal sense of his own destiny. But loyal, naive Erasmus doesn't grasp the scope of Zeke's recklessness and blind ambition until Zeke has committed a series of colossal and fatal blunders, subjecting his men to unspeakable privation, hunger, cold and danger. When the crew finally refuses to accompany Zeke on a foolhardy mission and he goes off alone and does not return on schedule, Erasmus is placed in an exquisite dilemma: whether to force the men to gamble on Zeke's unlikely survival as the ice closes in for a second winter, or -- as he knows he must do -- abandon the ship and begin a harrowing trek over land and water in hope of rescue. Erasmus' eventual return home, where he is scorned by journalists, who accuse him of cowardice, and by his sister, Lavinia, who is bereft of her hopes of marriage, is underscored by further ironies so potent that readers will finish the last third of the book in a fever of anticipation and dread.
As Barrett describes the provisioning of the Narwhal, the flora and fauna of the arctic, the turbulent seas and breathtaking scenery, the plot seems slow to develop. But her careful depiction of all the characters -- a humane ship's doctor; a cook who survived the Irish famine; and, back in Philadelphia, spirited Alexandra Copeland, whose presence in the Wells household as companion to Lavinia eventually leads to an affecting love story -- deepens the narrative texture.
Meanwhile, the extremes of both human behavior and nature -- looming icebergs, fatal accidents, episodes of heroism, grisly discoveries of lost ships and dead men, the inexorable tyranny of winter darkness -- are described with an accuracy that make one forget that this is not a memoir but a work of the imagination. (PW best book of 1998)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1855, the Narwhal sets sail on a mission to find Sir John Franklin, lost while exploring the Arctic. On board is timid naturalist Erasmus Wells, whose sister is affianced to the ship's commander, Zeke Voorhees. The Arctic waters may be unforgiving, but they're not nearly as dangerous as Zeke's overriding ambition to make his name by finding Franklin. Barrett puts us on the deck of that ship, letting us feel the fear and the bitter cold; her prose has all the brilliance and heft of a looming iceberg. A novel of 19th-century grandeur that exhibits 20th-century sleekness and control. (LJ 9/1/98)
Writing at the zenith of her powers, Barrett has found in the tale of this ill-fated Arctic expedition a rich metaphor for the limits of scientific knowledge and the deeper failings of the human heart. --
Convincingly imagined, authoritative in detail, and epic in scope.
Does. . .Ms. Barrett succeed in fulfilling her own large ambitions? . . .up to a point. . . .Only in the novel's final pages does drama give way to melodramatic contrivance. . . . fluent plotting gives way to increasingly contrived events. . .these events. . .do not tarnish Ms. Barrett's very real achievements . . . --
The New York Times
[A] . . .richly researched fictional tale. . . .Despite the disappointingly pat finale, Barrett. . .masterfully navigates the waters of envy and egotism. --
Like an iceberg, the bulk of her story lies in the vast dark stillness beneath its surface. . . .[T]he novel emerges into a tale of the . . .modern. . .traditions we nwo so comfortably inhabit that th seldom give thought to what might have gotten pushed aside in the process of obtaining this questionably higher ground. --
The Women's Review of Books
. . .[A] powerful, brooding movel. . .moves like an advancing ice age. --
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.
Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic voyagea logical successor to such earlier fiction as
The Forms of Water (1993) and the National Book Award-winning Ship Feveris, simply, one of the best novels of the decade. In a flexible, lucid prose that effortlessly communicates detailed information about navigation, natural history, and several related disciplines, Barrett tells the increasingly moving story of naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells' ordeals: First, when he's on an 1855 expedition in search of explorer Sir John Franklin's lost crew, an expedition led by Erasmus' rash, ego-driven future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees; and second, when Erasmus' 'desertion' of their ship (the Narwhal) and the presumed death of the missing 'Zeke' poisons his reunion with his bereaved sister Lavinia and deepens his own fear that his life amounts to 'a history of failure.'
The narrative of the
Narwhal's exhausting, repetitive odyssey is artfully varied by Barrett's sympathetic concentration on Erasmus' mixture of stoic dutifulness and excruciating self-doubt, and by her vivid portrayals of such secondary characters as ship's cook Ned Kynd (a survivor of Ireland's Potato Famine), its surgeon (and Erasmus' revered soulmate) Jan Boerhaave, Lavinia's paid 'companion' Alexandra Coleman (instrumental in Erasmus' eventual recall to life), and the 'Arctic Highlanders,' whose inability to endure 'civilization' rewrites all the explorers' and scientists' theories. Zeke himselfa megalomaniac with striking resemblances to Melville's Ahabis the fulcrum on which Barrett springs a dazzling surprise that gives herdisturbing climactic pages an almost symphonic richness. 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.
“Breathes with a contemporary urgency, an exhilarating adventure novel…A genuine page turner that long lingers in the mind.”
Philip Graham - Chicago Tribune
“[B]oth cunningly cerebral and hair-raisingly visceral…This is an astonishingly good book by a writer we must declare as major.”
“Andrea Barrett is a unique and indispensable talent. Her 'Voyage of the Narwhal' is a brilliant reversal of 'Heart of Darkness': the danger is not that the character's 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.”
“A wonderful book in the truest sense of the wordwonder-filled.”
“This novel takes off over the sea, straight out of history and into tragedy…We get to luxuriate in the promise of retribution and in finely calibrated, persuasive prose.”
“A gripping adventure story.... Barrett's marvelous achievement is to have reimagined so graphically that cusp of time when Victorian certainty began to question whether it could encompass the world with its outward-bound enthusiasm alone.”
New York Times Book Review
“Stunning…Barrett shows the arrogance and delusion that drove the age of exploration better than any nonfiction book could.”
“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.”