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Andrea Barrett – The Voyage of the Narwhal

July 13, 2015

18. The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Read By: George Guidall
Length: 13h 22m (399 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 22 April 2015
Finished: 01 May 2015

Where did it come from? The book from the library booksale, the audiobook from Audible.
Why do I have it? I really liked Ship Fever, one of Barrett’s previous books.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 27 September 2011.

Exploration would
have been easier if they’d
had a GPS.

Summary: Erasmus Wells always wanted to be an explorer and naturalist, but his first experience with a collecting expedition in which the captain claimed credit for all of Erasmus’s work has left him somewhat bitter. But now he’s offered the chance to go on another expedition – to the Arctic this time – ostensibly to look for signs of a previous polar expedition that had disappeared without a trace the year before. It’s being captained by Zeke, a young man raised in the Wells family, sweetheart to Erasmus’s sister, and with a fierce drive to make a name for himself. This drive leads to tensions between the members of the expedition party and the crew of the Narwhal, the ship they’ve hired to take them to the far reaches of the North. And then when a disastrous decision means that the crew must overwinter in the Arctic, trapped in the ice throughout the endless night, Erasmus must face where his loyalties and his principles truly lie.

Review: I found this book really interesting, and very well written, but not exactly enjoyable. It (like Andrea Barrett’s other books) was chock-full of the history of science. Erasmus and the Narwhal were fictional, but many other aspects of the story were not, and the Narwhal felt like a vivid and realistic representation of something that could have happened. Similarly, the characters were discussing and debating many of the scientific theories of the day, in such a way as to really give the reader a feeling for what the general zeitgeist of the time was. The details about the daily life of the expedition Barrett provided were excellent, and woven into the fabric of the story in such a way as to build the world of the Narwhal and its trials (and the world of the Philidelphia society they were coming from) up around me. This was done so effectively that it actually made me claustrophobic at times, particularly during the portion of the book where the Narwhal is stuck in the ice. This was probably made worse by the fact that I was reading the audiobook – I typically find audiobooks more immersive than print, and so there were times I would have to turn it off, shake myself, and remind myself that it was in the 80s and sunny outside, and that I was in no imminent danger of going insane while slowly freezing to death. (So while that was a point in favor of the audiobook, in general, this is one book where I’d recommend reading the print version. I found the narrator’s pace of speaking to be intolerably slow – thank goodness for Audible’s 1.25x speed button!) Barrett’s writing was also really lovely, and felt believably authentic, its tone well-matched to the period.

However, while I was interested and engaged by the book, it’s hard to say that I really enjoyed the experience of reading it, and that’s down entirely to a lack of truly likable characters (some of the secondary characters – Ned Kind, and Dr. Boorhave, and Alexandra – were generally likable, but it wasn’t enough to salvage things). Zeke drove me crazy – I don’t think I’ve ever rooted harder for a mutiny to happen – and while Erasmus was mostly sympathetic, he was too waffly and hand-wringing for my tastes, especially when it came to matters involving Zeke. I suppose if he’d grown a spine sooner, it would have been a much shorter book, but ARGH! This book did make for an interesting book club, with lots of fodder for discussion about the attitudes of the time, and the nature of loyalty, and what Zeke’s motivations were and whether we thought those were believable, and why Erasmus didn’t just tip Zeke over the side already and tell everyone that he’d been eaten by a polar bear. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I like books about the history of science and the history of exploration, so this novel was straight up my alley. If you also like those things, I definitely think this is worth reading, even if it was a little crazy-making at times.

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First Line: He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.

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