Tag Archives: Andrea Barrett

“Ship Fever” – stories by Andrea Barrett

Ship Fever: Stories

This is a collection. I’ve read about half the stories. Excellent! I’m postponing the title story, the longest in this anthology, until I’m ready to deal with disease and woe. Not today…

The back cover says the stories are “set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century”, but at least two are contemporary. The cover also says “…they illuminate the secret passions of those driven by a devotion to, and an intimate acquaintance with, the natural world.” Yes.

Barrett’s writing is concise to the point of compression.

“The Littoral Zone” is contemporary, it’s setting very much like a place where I have vacationed, offshore from Portsmouth, NJ. It tells the story of two scientists falling in love and dismantling their families in order to marry. It reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I appreciated its brevity.

I also especially liked “The English Pupil”, about Carl Linnaeus (creator of the binomial nomenclature we use to identify living organisms) in his old age, around the year 1775.

I read Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel several years ago. Loved it!

I plan to read further among Barrett’s books and other short story collections.

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.