The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Ms. Barrett crafted this wonderful story and brought it to life primarily by virtue of the historical research that gives each scene a vivid reality.  But she also uses the contrast between Erasmus’ personality and the concept of adventure to make it seem even more exotic.  I quickly became immersed in the expedition.  It was so real and so absorbing that I had great difficulty tearing my self from the story to continue my own daily life.  I felt while reading the book, that I was on a vicarious, fabulous adventure in another time.  At its conclusion, I felt as though I had just rushed through a text, which had more depth, content and historical richness than there was time to absorb.


Ms. Barrett weaves adventure, hardship, danger, conflict and love into a complex story line set in the mid-nineteenth century.  She introduces her four protagonists and their emotional quadrangular relationship in the first chapter.  The wildly different personalities of Erasmus, Zeke, Lavinia & Alexandra create a background tension in the story that hangs in our mind as the author carries us along on the expedition with its daily foreground tension.  She cleverly foreshadows future events using Erasmus’ internal dialogue in the first chapter. 

She sets up anxiety about the future by using the cavalier Zeke as the leader on a brig called Narwahl, a name derived from the old Norse words ‘corpse whale’.


I did experience some early disenchanted with the story only because I was unable to identify with the protagonist, Erasmus, who ruminated in a scientifically meticulous and droll voice about his life and his failures.  Erasmus was ever ready to be the victim.  Fortunately, I continued to read in spite of the reluctant and flawed Erasmus. 


I expected to find a hero, but there was none, yet the tale was heroic.  The men and women act heroically many times for a variety of reasons.  Erasmus heroically leads the remaining crew of the Narwhal to safety after Ned forces him into thedecision.  Ned heroically drags Zeke back across the ice to the brig on his return trip from Anaorak, although neither he nor the doctor wanted to go.  Annie heroically gives her life to support her tribe’s beliefs and to save her son.  The only real candidate for the title of hero might be Ned, but he is only a background character.


Strangely, the character Zeke’s motivations are never fully revealed although he has a determining impact on the course of the story .  The allusion to Erasmus’ father in his confrontation with Erasmus is not enough.  Also, any information about Zeke’s solo trip North on foot is completely missing from the story.  The trip would have been a perfect opportunity to explore Zeke’s obsession using internal dialogue.  This lack of information about Zeke struck me early in the story.  At the end of the first chapter I wondered, “Who is Zeke?” and, “Why would experienced adult men turn their lives over to a 26 year old arrogant, self involved egomaniac with no significant credentials?”  These questions were never answered to my satisfaction.


In sharp contrast, both Lavinia and Alexandra were very real and interesting even as secondary characters.  For me, they represented alternative extremes of female personalities, one competent, in pursuit of a meaningful life and the other frivolous, seeking an owner husband.  This contrast or culture clash if you will, is also contained within Ms. Barrett’s characters in her Ship Fever short stories.


In general, Ms. Barrett is deeply perceptive about the feelings of her characters. She effectively conveys an Austen like love between the protagonists that consists of restraint, waiting and for Lavinia, pining.  She keeps us, like her characters, dangling in anticipation of a relationship.  Erasmus seems oblivious of his own interest in Alexandra, which quite nicely fits his character.  However, I felt his loss of Dr. BooreHaave in my soul and I grieved with Erasmus.  I also felt the discomfort of Erasmus’ inadequacy dealing with leadership.  It was only Zeke who remained a mystery throughout the novel.  It was almost as though Ms. Barrett herself disliked Zeke and refused to give him any feelings.


As the Northern adventure ends in Part II and Ms. Barrett moves into the final crisis with the Esquimaux woman and her son in Part III the story converges to a very realistic conclusion.  In this section, the author’s use of internal dialogue by the Intuit woman and the boy is particularly creative.  I have found many authors’ climaxes and conclusions to be perfunctory and unsatisfying.  However the ends of this story fold together nicely and I put the book down with a sense of completion. 


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