Thursday, March 22, 2007

Arctic voyages

A few years back, I read Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal. Refocusing on polar literature lately made me want to look at this novel again. I loved it the first time & so on looking it over again, I thought I'd share why I think this book is so great.
First, of course, is the fact that I've always liked reading about Arctic explorers, as did Barrett herself, according to an interview.
"I had a great passion for the Arctic as a little girl. When I was seven or eight, all I did was read things about the Arctic, like Peary, Cook, Nansen, Shackleton, and Amundsen."
Then there is the writing itself. Using excerpts of various naturalists & explorers to begin the chapters, she continues on with the experiences of the scientist characters, both in the Arctic and afterward. Rather than an "adventure" story, this seems more of an expedition, both into the natural world and into the motives and purposes within each participant. The book focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a naturalist nearing 40, who believes that his feelings of uselessness will be assuaged by accompanying his future brother-in-law Zechariah Voorhees (Zeke) on an Arctic expedition. Of course, all goes horribly wrong, with Zeke proving to be a terrible captain, stranding the expedition to over-winter in the Arctic. The details of the story make it slow, precise reading; but the accumulation of information about all the varied characters intrigued me enough to continue on. While the expedition itself is, of course, made up of men, this story also includes the women left behind in Philadelphia. Erasmus' sister & Zeke's fiancée, Lavinia and her companion Alexandra have their own stories to tell. The themes of exploration, of one's interior life as well as the landscape, show up in both groups.
I enjoyed this book, I think, as much for the realism of the Arctic survival story as for the luminous, poetic prose. The interweaving of the actual voyage with the life stories of Erasmus' family members and his quietly developing romance make this a very satisfying read. It is an introduction to an entire family and to the society they find themselves navigating. Highly recommended for its precision, and for the extraordinary way Barrett breathes life into this historical moment.


  1. Melanie, I was so happy to see your review. I've had this book on my bedroom bookshelf for a couple of years. I have read and loved Barrett's short story books, Ship Fever and Servants of the Map. Her writing is so beautiful. Your lovely review has brought Voyage of the Narwhal to the forefront of my thinking. Thank-you.

  2. Booklogged - You're welcome! I've also read her short stories - once on the train when I looked up and realized we had stopped in her hometown as I was reading. Weird. I love her way of weaving science into her narratives.

  3. OK, you said novel. I'm just not a a careful reader.


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