by BARRETT, Andrea
In Andrea Barrett's extraordinary novel of Arctic and personal exploration, maps are deceitful, ice all-powerful, and reputation more important than truth or human lives. When the Narwhal sets sail from Philadelphia in May 1855, its ostensible goal is to find the crew of a long-vanished expedition--or at least their relics--and be home before winter. Of course, if the men can chart new coasts and stock up on specimens en route, so much the better. And then there's the keen prospect of selling their story, fraught with danger and discovery, to a public thirsting for excitement. Zeke Voorhees, the Narwhal's young commander, is so handsome that he makes women stare and men "hum with envy"--perhaps not the best qualification for his post--but he seems loved by all. Only his brother-in-law-to-be, a naturalist, quietly mistrusts him, though he's determined to stand by the youth for his sister Lavinia's sake. At 40, eternal low-profiler Erasmus Darwin Wells has one disastrous expedition behind him and is praying for another scientific chance. He is, however, familiar with the physical risks they're taking, as well as the "long stretches when nothing happened except that one's ties to home were imperceptibly dissolved and one became a stranger to one's life."
And what of the women left behind? Lavinia knows little of the dangers of ice (though she's well schooled in isolation) and lives only for Zeke's return. Her companion, Alexandra Copeland, is less sanguine. Even after she's been given a secret career break--ghosting for an ailing engraver--she knows how invisible she is and how threatening her family's "dense net of obligations" will always be. Though they get less page time, Barrett is in fact as concerned with these women as she is with her seafarers. Like the heroines of her National Book Award-winning Ship Fever, who bump up against science and history in which only men's triumphs are written, they must somehow escape social tyranny or retreat into the consolations of storytelling or silence.
There is tyranny on board the Narwhal as well, as Zeke alternates between good will and paranoia, his closest companion an arctic fox he has "civilized" and who sits on his shoulder "like a white epaulet." (Alas, Sabine, like many of the men, is not to survive the journey.) Encounters with the Esquimaux--who might know more about the lost expedition than they're willing to share--not having gone according to plan, Zeke determines in late August to head for Smith Sound rather than home, despite the crew's protests. By mid-September, however, the craft is ice-locked, and it's clear they'll have to "winter over." At first the men make the best of their situation, magically sculpting cottages, castles, palaces, even a whale--and offering informal seminars in butchery, Bible studies, and basic navigation. However, as the weather worsens and Zeke grows increasingly despotic, morale plummets.
Barrett excels in both physical and social description, writing with a naturalist's precision and a passionate imagination. With quick strokes (backed up by intense research), she can fill us in on some sensible but threatening Esquimaux footgear: "All five were dressed in fur jackets and breeches, with high boots made from the leg skins of white bears. The men's feet, Erasmus saw, were sheltered by the bears' feet, with claws protruding like overgrown human toenails. Walking, the men left bear prints on the snow." The author also shines in panoramic scenes--her descriptions of the Arctic can only be called magnificent--and in small, precarious, personal moments. When Erasmus eventually returns to Philadelphia, minus his toes and his future brother-in-law, a grieving Lavinia takes to her bed. Eventually, however, she relents: "Lavinia stared straight ahead. Straight at Erasmus, her right hand tucked in her lap while her left turned a silver spoon back to front, front to back, the reflections melting, re-forming, and melting again.... Lavinia said softly, 'I forgive you.' Everyone knew she was speaking to Erasmus."
The Voyage of the Narwhal is full of blood-freezing surprises, a score of indelible characters, and heart-stopping mysteries. As Erasmus watches Alexandra draw landscapes he has seen before but missed something in, each pencil stroke is "like a chisel held to a cleavage plane: tap, tap, and the rock split into two sharp pieces, the world cracked and spoke to him." Readers of Andrea Barrett's novel will experience this sensation again and again. Packed with harsh truths about the not-always-true art of discovery, it is also among the most emotionally wrenching, subtle works of the century. --Kerry Fried
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