Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic voyage--a logical successor to such...



Barrett's impeccably researched and stunningly written tale of a star-crossed Arctic voyage--a logical successor to such earlier fiction as The Forms of Water (1993) and the National Book Award-winning Ship Fever--is, 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's ordeals: First, when he's on an 1855 expedition in search of explorer Sir John Franklin's lost crew, an expedition led by Erasmus's rash, ego-driven future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees; and second, when Erasmus's ""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's 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's revered soulmate) Jan Boerhaave, Lavinia's paid ""companion"" Alexandra Coleman (instrumental in Erasmus's eventual recall to life), and the ""Arctic Highlanders,"" whose inability to endure ""civilization"" rewrites all the explorers' and scientists' theories. Zeke himself--a megalomaniac with striking resemblances to Melville's Ahab--is the fulcrum on which Barrett springs a dazzling surprise that gives her disturbing 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. One yearns for Barrett to treat in such exemplary detail the story of Jemmy Button, the Tierra del Fuegan Indian returned to London after Darwin's voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. You feel she could do full justice to it, or indeed whatever subject she chooses.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998


Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1998

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