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The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

The Voyage of the Narwhal (original 1998; edition 1998)

by Andrea Barrett (Author)

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1,3323110,949 (3.92)138
In 1885 Erasmus Darwin Wells embarks an expedition to the Arctic to search for the explorer, John Franklin. Erasmus' fears of failure seem to be realized when the voyage threatens to turn violent.
Title:The Voyage of the Narwhal
Authors:Andrea Barrett (Author)
Info:W W Norton & Co Inc (1998), Edition: 1st, 397 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)


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A beautiful, immersive, historic novel about the forgotten age of ship exploration. Voyage of the Narwhal is heavily populated with actual historical persons, along with a handful of imagery folks for the sake of telling the tale, as well.

While reading this book, I actually felt like I, too, was an Arctic explorer in the mid 19th Century... experiencing all of the troubles, frustrations, perils, and joys that came along with this bygone period of history.

Heavily researched via the journals and memoirs of many 19th Century Arctic explorers, absolutely don't miss this one if you love history and/or nautical tales. ( )
  Desiree_Reads | Aug 31, 2021 |
This book is painstakingly historically accurate in almost everything but the facts about the imagined characters in the foreground of the story. Sadly, I know I would've enjoyed the story a lot more if it had strayed further from historically plausible events and gotten weird with it. At the very end there is a moment of magical realism that I found redeemed the book for me a great deal. Before that I had almost given the book up because it was so profoundly boring for so long, focusing on unlikeable characters failing to grow in any appreciable way. ( )
  wishanem | May 27, 2021 |
Enjoyed the internal and external journeys in this book. Beautifully told. I found it a bit unsettling because it is a historical novel woven with a more classical character novel. Perhaps I have read so many Arctic and Antarctic journals and the author has done such a good job, I found it hard to read as a fiction as it feels so genuine. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | Jan 23, 2021 |
Oddly, for a novel about an expedition turning into an adventure, the primary adventure in Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal ends 140 pages before the book does. Also odd (though apt), Barrett begins with an excerpt from Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropiques criticizing such expeditions as vehicles by which “platitudes and commonplaces…[are] miraculously transmuted into revelations” because the “author, instead of doing his plagiarizing at home, has supposedly sanctified it” by a corrupted version of some quest. With an advertisement like that, what reasons could induce us to read this story?

Good reasons, it turns out. For one, a clawing moral issue is pressed onto the one man among the ship’s officers whose conscience is worst prepared to feel right about whichever choice he is forced to make. And as central as the adventure is, the key elements are those arising from his decision. A voyage, we learn, is not over just because it ends.

Set in the years 1855–1858, the tale is filled with tremendous detail. In case you wished to know it, Barrett will share with you how to acquire a warble fly larva, and how to eat it. And while it is men’s ambitious enterprises that drive the story, it’s not limited to men and their ambitions. Barrett takes care to depict women’s confined frustrations. We witness the strangeness of the “Esquimaux” to the crew and the strangeness of the crew to Arctic natives. Underlying it all are issues of trust between people and between cultures and the need to remain skeptical when an offered narrative is just what we want to hear. Related themes bear on the question, when is a person become lost? The question occurs in many contexts: Loss of loyalty? Loss of place? Loss of public honor? Loss of self-respect? Loss of the love of people who know you or the good opinion of people who do not? Loss of faith? What can be salvaged from a path rewarded with such failures? From a life seen as failure?

Some of the plot developments are predictable. The pace is not tuned for excitement. But the villainy is complex enough, the characters changeable, surprises occur, and we are shown well how acclaim for heroism is influenced by the momentum of publicity machines. Above all, the Arctic and the voyaging are wonderfully rendered. Andrea Barrett’s achievement here is considerable, as is her resistance to the platitudes and corruptions of plagiarized sanctity and sanitized society. ( )
  dypaloh | Aug 22, 2020 |
A (fictional) expedition sets out to look for John Franklin, the well-known British explorer who went missing with his ships while trying to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition is led by both Zeke, a young man whose father is funding the trip, and a captain who is in charge of the boat. Zeke has never been to the Arctic but has read all the accounts he can find. The captain is a whaler, not an Arctic explorer. Needless to say, having two leaders, especially these two, causes endless problems.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Zeke's friend and future brother-in-law Erasmus, whose naturalist-trained family Zeke has dreamed of joining since he was a child. Erasmus is older and has been on several expeditions, including one to Antarctica. He feels obligated to accompany Zeke at his sister's behest, but it's difficult to support Zeke, who clearly doesn't have a clue about handling men or dealing with emergencies and proceeds to antagonize everyone on board. Crises show Zeke's true colors and shortcomings and throw the expedition into disarray, an especially dangerous situation in the Arctic. Several other characters' viewpoints are interspersed, but this is really Erasmus' story.

Highly recommended. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Jul 9, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (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.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrea Barrettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Guidall, GeorgeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In 1885 Erasmus Darwin Wells embarks an expedition to the Arctic to search for the explorer, John Franklin. Erasmus' fears of failure seem to be realized when the voyage threatens to turn violent.

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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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