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The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998)

by Andrea Barrett

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1,4363612,053 (3.89)152
An expedition by sea to the Arctic in 1885 to search for the explorer, John Franklin. The protagonists are two men from Philadelphia, the dynamic but foolhardy organizer and his companion, a naturalist who considers himself a loser. The loser lives, the dynamo dies. By the author of Ship Fever.

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» See also 152 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
When Zeke came back my heart sank - there was just no good that could come from him and his way of stealing all the happiness in a room for himself. I slammed the book down and walked away, and it took me three days to sufficiently nerve myself for whatever was to come.

When Dr. Boerhaave died my heart broke for him and also for Erasmus, who was just beginning to see the beauty of having a dear friend. When Erasmus got the letter from one of the doctor's other friends, and that friend called the doctor by his first name, I felt Erasmus's sadness and shame that his priceless friendship apparently hadn't even made it out of stage 1. Who among us hasn't been crushed by the knowledge that someone is more important to us than we are to them.

When the author described how the doctor's drowned head had washed up on the cliff below the men's camp, and that they simply didn't look over, nor did they hear the wind whistling across the jawbone, I gasped. The way that she showed us something that could have been life-altering for Erasmus but wasn't, how she played with going past coincidence into far-fetchedness BUT DIDN'T, was brilliant.

Wonderful wonderful wonderful book. ( )
  blueskygreentrees | Jul 30, 2023 |
The Voyage of the Narwhal is so schematic, with the standard revelations (the oppressed heroine has to break out of society's conventions in order to follow her artistic dreams) and standard poetic stretches. There's lots of nice details about the food and the tedium and the illness -- each of the characters is a little raft of tactile human misery -- but these human details are often swamped by the impersonal flood of Important Themes and Momentous Symbolism. There are sections where the writing is perfectly lovely and clean and spare; there are other spots where sentences threaten to buckle under the weight of abrupt epiphanies. ( )
  proustbot | Jun 19, 2023 |
A small expedition heads to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin. Overall the novel does a nice job of including the whole Arctic world of the mid 19th century — not just the actual expeditions, but the marketing and lecture tours of those expeditions before and afterward. And the novel moves quickly.

Maybe even too quickly. At times it feels almost like a summary of the novel, rather than the novel itself. Telling, not showing. This is particularly clear in the more grisly parts of the Arctic expedition — our author, maybe a little squeamishly, has the most sensationalist bits occur offstage and only reported secondhand.

In addition, the characters felt like stereotypes and never really developed. The central love affair in particular felt very forced and an afterthought. ( )
  theoldlove | Apr 12, 2023 |
Here's what I wrote in 2008 about this read: "Yikes, getting frozen into Artic waters in winter; haunting. Online reviews recalled more of the finer details; a well-told tale, and probably worth a re-read." Here's an descriptive description from New York Public Library's annotation (probably written by the publisher): "Barrett's explorers discover-as all explorers do-not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls." ( )
  MGADMJK | Sep 15, 2022 |
3.5 stars

Erasmus Darwin Wells is a naturalist from Philadelphia and is excited to be able to head to the Arctic with his friend Zeke (who is engaged to Erasmus’s sister) in 1855, a number of years after Franklin’s expedition. They hope to be able to find traces of Franklin’s missing crew, as well as any artifacts left behind. Unfortunately, Erasmus doesn’t realize how bad things will turn with Zeke as commander.

This was good. It took a while to get going, so I really didn’t get interested until they were on their way. Even while they were away, the scenes with Erasmus’s sister, Lavinia, and her friend, Alexandra, back home bored me. That entire storyline did get more interesting later on, however. I sure didn’t like Zeke (along with the majority of the characters – at least the ones on board the Narwhal!). ( )
  LibraryCin | Jun 6, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
Barrett's marvelous achievement is to have reimagined so graphically that cusp of time when Victorian certainty began to question whether it could encompass the world with its outward-bound enthusiasm alone -- when it started to glimpse the dark ballast beneath the iceberg's dazzling tip.
It's been a long time since an American novel appeared that's as stately and composed as Andrea Barrett's "The Voyage of the Narwhal," the fictional account of a 19th century Arctic expedition and its aftermath that doubles also as a meditation on the nature of adventure and the scientific mind. In "The Voyage of the Narwhal," she has shaped a compelling narrative around the golden age of Arctic exploration, written in the spirit, if not the length or the exact style, of a 19th century novel -- solid, unhurried, reflective and totally wedded to plot. Barrett tells her story through multiple voices -- Erasmus, Zeke, their colleagues, the crew and the women waiting patiently at home -- but "Voyage of the Narwhal" is her own creation, marvelously imagined and beautifully told. A first-rate novel and a welcome, old-fashioned read.
Like "Ship Fever," "Narwhal" showcases Ms. Barrett's gifts for extracting high drama from the complex world of science and natural history and for placing her characters in situations that reveal their fundamental natures. Indeed, "Narwhal" is an adventure story in the way that Conrad's "Lord Jim" and "The Nigger of the Narcissus" are adventure stories: the story's extreme conditions and harrowing experiences, which make for such gripping reading, are actually moral and spiritual tests that strip away the characters' public masks and expose their innermost drives and fears.

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrea Barrettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.
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An expedition by sea to the Arctic in 1885 to search for the explorer, John Franklin. The protagonists are two men from Philadelphia, the dynamic but foolhardy organizer and his companion, a naturalist who considers himself a loser. The loser lives, the dynamo dies. By the author of Ship Fever.

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Part adventure narrative, part love story, this extraordinary chronicle captures a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth-century romance with the mystery of the Arctic. Combining fact and fiction, Barrett focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a scholar-naturalist accompanying the expedition of the Narwhal. Through his eyes we meet the various crew members and the expedition's blustery commander, obsessed with the search for an open polar sea, and we experience the wild, disturbing beauties of that last unexplored region.

In counterpoint to his view are those of the Esquimaux, witness to the expedition's exploits, and of the women left behind in Philadelphia, who can only imagine what lies beyond the north wind. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and history. In the real nineteenth-century expeditions, explorers' documents always cast the writer as hero. But what really happened up there, in the long winter darkness, trapped in ice?

On the Narwhal, everyone is frightened, nothing is certain, and heroics emerge in unexpected guises. Barrett's explorers discover — as all explorers do — not what was always there and never needed discovering, but the state of their own souls.

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