Friday, 27 April 2012
The Voyage of the Narwhal
Recently a friend strongly recommended that I read Andrea Barrett, an American with a scientific background who writes novels and short stories, mostly historical. I did what I usually do: made a note of the name, forgot all about it, found the note again, remembered, and bought the cheapest title available on Amazon Marketplace. This was a pretty fat, handsomely produced volume, a novel called The Voyage of the Narwhal, and I have just finished reading it. For me, it was a novel of two halves - strictly speaking of three parts, two of which I found gripping and impressive and the third and last sadly uninvolving. The Voyage... tells the story of an Arctic expedition in the 1850s, one occasioned by the mania to find out what became of Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition. The main characters - especially the recklessly ambitious expedition leader Zeke and the thoughtful naturalist Erasmus, whose life seems stalled and failed - are well drawn, and Barrett's immersion in her period and subject are so complete and convincing that at times she almost rivals Penelope Fitzgerald, though she is nothing like so concise (who is?). As the expedition gets under way - and the sense of impending disaster gradually grows - Barrett evokes the sights and sounds of the icy landscape brilliantly: the eerie strangeness of it, the terrifying power of the weather, the unstoppable force of the ice... Themes are apparent - the dawning of Darwinian ideas, the arrogance of 'discovery', the contradictory stories that can be made out of the same events, the plight of the women who wait, cannibalism (real and figurative), exploitation - but they do not obtrude; they are part of the whole. For the entirety of the expedition - the first two parts of the book - I was hooked... But then came the long aftermath, and everything changed. It felt now as if the author's imaginative energy was seeping away, like air from a punctured balloon. Her characters began to lose their independent life, working now to illustrate her themes and fulfil their fictional destiny. I lost interest even in the lovable Erasmus, and by the time the novel laboured to a close, I was reading more from self-imposed duty than for pleasure. I felt as if I'd said goodbye to the characters - and to the real heart of the novel - back there on the Arctic ice. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else who has read The Voyage... or any other of Andrea Barrett's fictions. I have the feeling that she is potentially a very good, and very interesting writer. Perhaps she is at her best over a shorter distance?