The scientific themes that made Barrett’s novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) and her NBA–winning collection Ship Fever (1996) two of the most unusual literary successes of their decade again predominate in this superb new gathering of four stories and two novellas.
Two are roughly contemporary. In “The Mysteries of Ubiquitur,” a girl who grows up in an ardent, articulate family “packed with scientists” spends her life in the comforting, smothering shadow of the older man who had encouraged her childish curiosity. And in “The Forest,” an elderly biochemist seduces a vibrant young woman into a complex visit to his past. The inchoate, unclassifiable nature of human emotions is studied in “Theories of Rain” (and famed naturalist William Bartram makes an appearance), while the problem of reconciling science with religion and the conjoining of two separate lives are examined in “Two Rivers,” a searchingly ambitious story that could have been even more elaborately developed. Barrett is at her best in the longer tales. The title novella is about a cartographer who, after being posted to India’s Himalayan range, becomes obsessed with the region’s harsh splendor and exiles himself from his homeland and marriage. And “The Cure” (with its slight echoes of the earlier “Ship Fever”) is a brilliant story of several generations’ ordeals (in Ireland, the North Atlantic, and the Adirondacks) relative to the mingled beauty and fury of the natural world and the futility and necessity of human efforts to control and comprehend it. There are many connections, genealogical and otherwise, among these six tales and the content of its two immediate predecessors. One understands how the intricacies of the complex phenomena Barrett has studied have possessed her imagination: she’s still filling in gaps, revisiting scenes, reworking materials.
Gorgeous, illuminating, entrancing fiction.