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. As a writer, Barrett has long been concerned with the restless energies and interior conflicts that drive people to search for things not known before and, equally important, to capture what they find. In 1996, Barrett won the National Book Award for "Ship Fever," a collection of shorter pieces on "the love of science and the science of love." 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's story finds its impetus in one of the great enigmas of history, the disappearance of the British explorer Sir John Franklin and all of his crew on a voyage to discover the Northwest Passage. In the 1850s, the case was an international cause cilhbre, and the efforts to find Franklin and his party on subsequent excursions led to as many adventures and mishaps as originally befell Franklin. Newspapers and magazines went wild over the story. Franklin was a popular hero whose portrait hung in countless middle-class drawing rooms, and any man who managed to find him would have been assured of fame and glory. Against this factual backdrop, Barrett has created Erasmus Darwin Wells, a Philadelphia naturalist whose previous explorations around the world have ended in shame and discredit, and Erasmus' protigi, Zechariah Vorhees, called "Zeke," who is engaged to Erasmus' sister and who leads the Narwhal on a quest for Franklin through the Arctic. Zeke's goal, as Erasmus discovers to his cost, is not just to find the Franklin party but to be the Man Who Did.
Erasmus has his own kind of glory in mind -- "northern sights to parallel," "discoveries in natural history that might prove extraordinarily important" -- but ego wins out in all directions. On the adventurers' return, the truth about what happened on the Narwhal is the first and lasting casualty.
"Why is it so difficult to capture what was there?" Erasmus wonders. "I wish I could show it as through a fan of eyes. Widening out from my single perspective to several viewpoints, then many, so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it. As if I weren't there." 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.