A brilliant first collection of stories--many set in the historical past, and all concerning varieties of scientific pursuit and discovery--by the author of such well-received novels as The Middle Kingdom (1991) and The Forms of Water (1993). Barrett begins with a stunner: ``The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,'' about an unfulfilled faculty wife, her family's heritage of violence, and a telling incident in the life of the plant geneticist Gregor Mendel that impinged on the family's life and continues to cast long shadows over the woman's own psyche and marriage. The other six stories, all distinguished by a thoughtfully meditative tone and a firm focus on characters eager to analyze and understand their own natures, are almost uniformly rich and suggestive. ``Rare Bird'' describes the furtive rebellion of a gifted woman who, refusing to defer to her stolid brother's inferior intelligence, ingeniously escapes his--and their century's (the eighteenth's)--domination of women. ``Soroche'' relates a woman's progress through marriage, loss of husband and security, and toward fulfillment--ironically compared with the sad misadventures of ``Jemmy Button,'' the Tierra del Fuegan Indian uprooted from his culture and all but destroyed: It's a beautifully conceived tale, filled with mysterious grace notes and resonances. ``Birds with No Feet'' recounts the burning away of a young zoologist's illusions when he finds in Darwin's theory of evolution a mocking, yet strangely comforting explanation of his own character and fortunes. And the title novella, about a young Canadian doctor's existential adventure ministering to typhus- stricken Irish immigrants, re-creates with astonishing conviction a vanished time and place, and memorably examines both the despair and the moral courage of people who believe they can do no more, and no less, than, simply, what is right. Marvelous stories, unlike any being written today, by a writer whose continuing growth may well be one of the most interesting literary developments of the '90s.