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THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL
Andrea Barrett
W.W. Norton
394 pages
Publication date 1998

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One of Andrea Barrett's previous novels, SHIP FEVER, won the 1996 National Book Award, so you might expect that you're in for a good reading experience with this one. You'd be right.

It chronicles the experiences of Erasmus Darwin Wells (his father, a lover of learning, named his brothers Copernicus, Linneaeus and Humboldt), a 40-year-old second-string naturalist aboard a ship in 1855, bound for the Arctic in search of a missing explorer. Commander Franklin, the adventurer in question, was a historical personage. The men of the Narwhal are fictional, but Ms. Barrett makes them come alive in these pages.

Erasmus's expedition aboard the Narwhal is commanded by a family friend, Zechariah "Zeke" Voorhees, a charismatic and single-minded man who is determined not only to find Commander Franklin but also an open-water route to the Pole. Zeke is affianced to Erasmus's sister, Lavinia. People just naturally like Zeke, but he is young and inexperienced. The ship's captain and crew, hard-bitten whaling men, regard Zeke with barely hidden contempt; Zeke, however, has too much faith in himself to notice.

Barrett alternates chapters of shipboard life with chapters set back in the Philadelphia home Erasmus has left, where his sister and her friend Alexandra Copeland, who has an interest in Erasmus, pass their time in their varied pursuits while waiting for their men to return.

Although Barrett takes the time to carefully delineate all her characters doing so through their various journal entries Erasmus and Alexandra are the most interesting ones, since they are the ones with the most introspective qualities. Zeke, an intrepid man who refuses to accept any failure, is ultimately so pigheaded that he seems somewhat unsympathetic. Yet, in the hands of a lesser writer, Zeke would be main character, since he is the one who experiences the most trying circumstances.

But this is no mere adventure story, despite the fascinating passages detailing the lives of the Eskimos the men of the Narwhal meet, and the sailors' efforts to survive being locked in ice during the long Arctic winter. These latter passages are truly harrowing, as Barrett details the accumulating effects of scurvy and deadly boredom among the suffering and freezing men.

Barrett unrolls her plot slowly at times, as though she is letting something of the eternal sameness of the polar environment seep into the narrative for effect but she springs surprises every now and then, too, just as things seem to be congealing. A strong undercurrent of eroticism (even, I would say, repressed homoeroticism involving both sexes) charges many scenes, despite the total absence of lovemaking or sex. This is a very wise way to handle settings that are essentially static, and the tension thus generated underlines the sexual repression of the times. There are some truly magical passages, and the ending takes a strange little fantastic twist that in retrospect seems perfectly logical.

In short, this is a masterful book by a writer at the top of her form. It's thoughtful and thought provoking, as much about science and exploration as it is about the illimitable gulfs between people. Barret's clear, evocative prose never gets in the way of her goal, which is to draw characters whose travails will stay with you.

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