The award-winning author returns with another collection of stories distinguished by uncommon scope and depth.
Having won the National Book Award with Ship Fever (1996), Barrett has continued to command fictional territory all her own. Her latest collection of five stories finds her fiction typically steeped in science, rich in ideas, set in the historical past, and filled with characters who share the excitement, and some of the fear, of discovery. Framing the collection are two stories featuring the same protagonist, Constantine Boyd, as a boy of 12 from Detroit in “The Investigators,” set in 1908, and as a soldier amid the madness of war in the concluding title story, set in 1919 Russia. The first story is a masterwork of misdirection, as the boy investigates a world rife with discovery—of evolution, flight, family, identity, self (away from home, he flirts with calling himself “Stan”)—while the reader discovers the underlying story of the protagonist’s home life, the reasons why the boy spends summers with one uncle or another. Other stories delve deeply into the debates initially surrounding evolution, the popular but subsequently discarded notion of ether, and the darker implications of genetics (with the rise of Nazi Germany as a backdrop). Yet the characters are never secondary to (or mere mouthpieces for) the provocative ideas, as the stories explore relationships among mentors and students, scientific rivals, romantic attractions. She writes not only of someone “who still appreciates the poet’s wonderment in these days at the marvels of science,” but as someone who can recapture that wonderment decades after such marvels have been embraced or refuted. And she recognizes throughout the collection “how the theories seized on with such enthusiasm by one generation might be discarded scornfully by the next.”
Barrett's stories rank with the best.