Book: Ship Fever and Other Stories

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Book:

Ship Fever and Other Stories

Author: Andrea Barrett
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Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

The elegant short fictions gathered hereabout the love of science and the science of love are often set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century. Interweaving historical and fictional characters, they encompass both past and present as they negotiate the complex territory of ambition, failure, achievement, and shattered dreams. In “Ship Fever,” the title novella, a young Canadian doctor finds himself at the center of one of history’s most tragic epidemics. In “The English Pupil,” Linnaeus, in old age, watches as the world he organized within his head slowly drifts beyond his reach. And in “The Littoral Zone,” two marine biologists wonder whether their life-altering affair finally was worth it. In the tradition of Alice Munro and William Trevor, these exquisitely rendered fictions encompass whole lives in a brief space. As they move between interior and exterior journeys, “science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange and thrilling fictional material” (Boston Globe).

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In 1764, two Englishwomen set out to prove that swallows—contrary to the great Linnaeus’s belief—do not hibernate underwater. But they must be patient and experiment in secret, such actions being inappropriate for the female of the species. In 1862, a hopeless naturalist heads off for yet another journey, though he can’t seem to rid his conscience of the thousands of animals that have already died in his service. In 1971, a pregnant young woman, ill at ease with her socially superior husband and his stepchildren, hears of a Tierra del Fuegan taken hostage by the commander of the Beagle in 1835. This unwilling specimen was, we read, “captured, exiled, re-educated; then returned, abused by his family, finally re-accepted. Was he happy? Or was he saying that as a way to spite his captors? Darwin never knew.”

Many of the characters who populate Andrea Barrett’s National Book Award-winning collection, Ship Fever, feel similarly displaced in the world. They long to prove themselves in both science and love, but are often thwarted by gender, social position, or the prevailing order. In “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” the wife of a genetics professor has learned that each narrative of discovery is matched by one, if not more, “in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.” Barrett’s astonishing tales of ambition and isolation convey the meaning and feeling behind the patterns—scientific and emotional—but slip free of easy closure. The two women in “Rare Bird,” like the swallows, depart England for more conducive climes, or so the brother of one believes. The reader is left to hope, and imagine. Much has been made of Andrea Barrett’s interlacing of history, knowledge, and fact—and rightly so. But equal attention should be paid to the brilliant serenity and exactitude of her style. —Kerry Fried

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