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The Voyage of the Narwhal [Hardcover]

Andrea Barrett
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Mar 1999

‘One of the best novels of the decade’ Kirkus ‘A stunning novel’ Publishers Weekly ‘It is among the most emotionally wrenching, subtle works of the century’

Many an ambitious Victorian voyager was mesmerized northwards to the Pole and Zeke Voorhees, an irrepressible young man brought up on marine yarns, is one such. His own inherent magnetism gathers to him a ship’s crew as varied and as intriguing as the polar flora and fauna two of their number are so keen to observe as natural historians. Voorhees sets his ship’s course in the wake of Franklin’s infamous expedition in search of an Open Polar Sea, but the Narwhal soon runs into difficulties all its own. Meanwhile, back home in a New England humming with new ideas, all is frustration for the women the brave explorers leave behind…

A brilliant portrait of a society obsessed with mapping and classifying everything under the sun – including the icy Arctic – where the
emancipation of women and the evolution of species are the next great revolutions just stirring into life; and where a man (but not a woman) becomes a man by being outward bound, an adventurer, an explorer; and where millions are eager to hear these heroes’ tales of peril on the seas, on the ice.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Flamingo; Uk 1st edition (1 Mar 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002257939
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002257930
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,970,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Things were different, then: when Erasmus Darwin Wells set off for the arctic in May of 1855, he and his companions went off into the unknown. Then, the world was not charted as it is today: vast white spaces of ice were still vast white spaces on maps.

Andrea Barrett's remarkable fourth novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal, follows Erasmus on his journey of discovery--a journey that takes place both within and without him. This is a tale of adventure, but of a very uncommon kind. Barrett, a scientist who has turned her acute mind to the more fluid demands of fiction, has created in Erasmus an uncertain traveller. He is already 40 and afraid he has wasted his life: the men he sails alongside, including the expedition's dashing and reckless commander, Zeke Voorhees, are his juniors. Perhaps Wells has been moved to venture north to shadow the impulsive Zeke, a childhood companion who takes with him the heedless love of Erasmus's sister, Lavinia. Danger, romance, distance, loss: in some ways, Andrea Barrett's novel is old fashioned, an epithet she would probably relish. Yet in setting her book 150 years ago, Barrett has managed to shed a clear white light on present day dilemmas, such as the exploitation of the wilderness and that of native peoples. She provides no easy answers, but the questions she poses continue to fascinate long after the reader has closed her majestic book. --Erica Wagner


‘The clarity and depth of the story dazzle’
The Times

‘Enthralling, rivetingly authentic’
Literary Review

‘Crammed full of rich, pictorial description and tingling suspense.’
New York Times

‘Among the most emotionally wrenching, subtle works of the century’

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A marvellous blend of history and human insight 14 Jun 1999
By A Customer
This book exists on many layers. It is superficially an account of a fictional, but highly plausible, account of a mission to discover the fate of the explorer Franklin, who vanished seeking the northwest passage. But it is much more than that. Barrett weaves into this narrative not only great poetry but great insight into the motivation of her two main characters, the egomaniacal leader of the expedition, who seeks personal glory above all, and the expedition's diffident naturalist, who in his own way is just as self-aggrandising. Like that other great book of external and internal voyage, White's Voss, The Narwhal succeeds in both its actual and metaphorical purposes. A remarkable read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Glorious Exploration 1 Feb 2011
By Sentinel TOP 500 REVIEWER
Ostensibly a quest to seek the last traces of the Franklin expedition, this captivating novel pitches two characters, the careful, diffident Erasmus, and the headstrong, increasingly deluded Zeke onto a 19th C sailing ship, and into the beautifully strange world of the Arctic. Back home, the women wait and wonder, dreaming of possible futures. Meanwhile, the ship's company moves through various trials, and makes new, important and strange discoveries, on both their external and internal journeys.
The strangeness of the terrain and other cultures is also mirrored by the strangeness they discover in one another. Yet even in the heart of this frozen world, love continues to beat its uncertain yet insistent path. Barrett recreates the sound, sights and smells on board a sailing ship, until the reader almost fancies themselves as a crew member; meanwhile back at home the clock ticks slowly as those left behind try to make sense of what little news filters back. A beautifully wrought and sustained world, which is mourned by the reader when it slips away. Strongly recommended. If you enjoy this, you should also enjoy the much more contemporary The Forms of Water
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Nicola F (Nic) TOP 500 REVIEWER
I have had this book sat on my shelf for what seems like forever, so I'm pleased I eventually got around to reading it. Actually, I don't know why I didn't get around to it sooner- I think I'd been avoiding it because it was a bit of a long book on what I suspected might be quite a dry subject matter. Despite an admittedly slow start and some peaks and troughs in the middle however, this was actually a really absorbing read.

Set during the 19th Century, the novel follows the expedition of the crew of `The Narwhal,' on their journey to the polar north and their quest to try to find out the fate of vanished explorer, Sir John Franklin. On board with this motley crew is the headstrong, voyage leader Zeke, as well as naturalist Erasmus. Erasmus longs to visit the north to catalogue flora and fauna and gain a wealth of knowledge of a culture and terrain very different from his own, but it appears that Zeke's motives for the journey are somewhat questionable...

I think for me, one of the stronger aspects of this novel was the relationship dynamics portrayed between the two lead characters- Zeke and Erasmus. Both are very different individuals and their underlying conflict and tension is clear from the beginning of the book and I enjoyed seeing this played out as the story progressed. The secondary characters too, are well written- from Joe with his leanings towards the Arctic lifestyle, to the much underused Dr Boerhaave and ships cook, Ned. As much of the book is set aboard the ship and time ticks by very slowly, the characters have to be strongly developed, otherwise the novel will become too dull, but they carried the plot well with all of their little quirks and foibles, even lifting it unexpectedly in places as they tried to make the best of their new surroundings.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched, enjoyable 28 Jan 2009
By paulzwo
This is an unusual and absorbing novel about an expedition to the arctic to try and discover what happened to Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition, who set out to find the North West passgage but never returned. The plot is fictional but much of the rest - the various artefacts found, reports from the Eskimo etc. - are completely factual. The author seems to have done an enormous amount of research to get the background details authentic, such as how the ship would have been, what clothing was worn etc., which helps make the book a convincing and enjoyable read. My one criticism is that the story loses momentum badly when the action shifts from the arctic back to dry land, and the main intrigue up until this point - the growing tension between Zeke & Erasmus - isn't just unresolved but dropped altogether. Nevertheless, recommended.
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