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The Voyage of the Narwhal Hardcover – Print, September, 1998

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 397 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition (September 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304632X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393046328
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,064,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

In Andrea Barrett's extraordinary novel of Arctic and personal exploration, maps are deceitful, ice all-powerful, and reputation more important than truth or human lives. When the Narwhal sets sail from Philadelphia in May 1855, its ostensible goal is to find the crew of a long-vanished expedition--or at least their relics--and be home before winter. Of course, if the men can chart new coasts and stock up on specimens en route, so much the better. And then there's the keen prospect of selling their story, fraught with danger and discovery, to a public thirsting for excitement. Zeke Voorhees, the Narwhal's young commander, is so handsome that he makes women stare and men "hum with envy"--perhaps not the best qualification for his post--but he seems loved by all. Only his brother-in-law-to-be, a naturalist, quietly mistrusts him, though he's determined to stand by the youth for his sister Lavinia's sake. At 40, eternal low-profiler Erasmus Darwin Wells has one disastrous expedition behind him and is praying for another scientific chance. He is, however, familiar with the physical risks they're taking, as well as the "long stretches when nothing happened except that one's ties to home were imperceptibly dissolved and one became a stranger to one's life."

And what of the women left behind? Lavinia knows little of the dangers of ice (though she's well schooled in isolation) and lives only for Zeke's return. Her companion, Alexandra Copeland, is less sanguine. Even after she's been given a secret career break--ghosting for an ailing engraver--she knows how invisible she is and how threatening her family's "dense net of obligations" will always be. Though they get less page time, Barrett is in fact as concerned with these women as she is with her seafarers. Like the heroines of her National Book Award-winning Ship Fever, who bump up against science and history in which only men's triumphs are written, they must somehow escape social tyranny or retreat into the consolations of storytelling or silence.

There is tyranny on board the Narwhal as well, as Zeke alternates between good will and paranoia, his closest companion an arctic fox he has "civilized" and who sits on his shoulder "like a white epaulet." (Alas, Sabine, like many of the men, is not to survive the journey.) Encounters with the Esquimaux--who might know more about the lost expedition than they're willing to share--not having gone according to plan, Zeke determines in late August to head for Smith Sound rather than home, despite the crew's protests. By mid-September, however, the craft is ice-locked, and it's clear they'll have to "winter over." At first the men make the best of their situation, magically sculpting cottages, castles, palaces, even a whale--and offering informal seminars in butchery, Bible studies, and basic navigation. However, as the weather worsens and Zeke grows increasingly despotic, morale plummets.

Barrett excels in both physical and social description, writing with a naturalist's precision and a passionate imagination. With quick strokes (backed up by intense research), she can fill us in on some sensible but threatening Esquimaux footgear: "All five were dressed in fur jackets and breeches, with high boots made from the leg skins of white bears. The men's feet, Erasmus saw, were sheltered by the bears' feet, with claws protruding like overgrown human toenails. Walking, the men left bear prints on the snow." The author also shines in panoramic scenes--her descriptions of the Arctic can only be called magnificent--and in small, precarious, personal moments. When Erasmus eventually returns to Philadelphia, minus his toes and his future brother-in-law, a grieving Lavinia takes to her bed. Eventually, however, she relents: "Lavinia stared straight ahead. Straight at Erasmus, her right hand tucked in her lap while her left turned a silver spoon back to front, front to back, the reflections melting, re-forming, and melting again.... Lavinia said softly, 'I forgive you.' Everyone knew she was speaking to Erasmus."

The Voyage of the Narwhal is full of blood-freezing surprises, a score of indelible characters, and heart-stopping mysteries. As Erasmus watches Alexandra draw landscapes he has seen before but missed something in, each pencil stroke is "like a chisel held to a cleavage plane: tap, tap, and the rock split into two sharp pieces, the world cracked and spoke to him." Readers of Andrea Barrett's novel will experience this sensation again and again. Packed with harsh truths about the not-always-true art of discovery, it is also among the most emotionally wrenching, subtle works of the century. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

Having honed her craft in four previous novels and the NBA-winning short-story collection Ship Fever (1996), Barrett delivers a stunning novel in which a meticulous grasp of historical and natural detail, insight into character and pulse-pounding action are integrated into a dramatic adventure story with deep moral resonance. In Philadelphia in 1855, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells?40, unmarried and gripped by a despondent realization that his life is a failure?sees a last chance to make his reputation as he prepares to accompany his future brother-in-law, Zechariah Voorhees, on a voyage to the arctic in search of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. At 26, Zeke bristles with charisma, and a megalomaniacal sense of his own destiny. But loyal, naive Erasmus doesn't grasp the scope of Zeke's recklessness and blind ambition until Zeke has committed a series of colossal and fatal blunders, subjecting his men to unspeakable privation, hunger, cold and danger. When the crew finally refuses to accompany Zeke on a foolhardy mission and he goes off alone and does not return on schedule, Erasmus is placed in an exquisite dilemma: whether to force the men to gamble on Zeke's unlikely survival as the ice closes in for a second winter, or?as he knows he must do?abandon the ship and begin a harrowing trek over land and water in hope of rescue. Erasmus's eventual return home, where he is scorned by journalists, who accuse him of cowardice, and by his sister, Lavinia, who is bereft of her hopes of marriage, is underscored by further ironies so potent that readers will finish the last third of the book in a fever of anticipation and dread. As Barrett describes the provisioning of the Narwhal, the flora and fauna of the arctic, the turbulent seas and breathtaking scenery, the plot seems slow to develop. But her careful depiction of all the characters?a humane ship's doctor; a cook who survived the Irish famine; and, back in Philadelphia, spirited Alexandra Copeland, whose presence in the Wells household as companion to Lavinia eventually leads to an affecting love story?deepens the narrative texture. Meanwhile, the extremes of both human behavior and nature?looming icebergs, fatal accidents, episodes of heroism, grisly discoveries of lost ships and dead men, the inexorable tyranny of winter darkness?are described with an accuracy that make one forget that this is not a memoir but a work of the imagination. The denouement, when it arrives, is a triumph: a confluence of justice, retribution, spiritual faith, metamorphosis and love. Maps and illustrations. Agent, Wendy Weil; editor, Carol Houk Smith.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Andrea Barrett was born in Boston, MA in 1954 and grew up on Cape Cod. She studied biology at Union College, in Schenectady, NY and started writing fiction in her twenties, after several brief stints in graduate school. She lived in Rochester, NY for many years and now lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, photographer Barry Goldstein. She's the author of six novels, most recently THE AIR WE BREATHE, and three collections of stories: SHIP FEVER, which received the 1996 National Book Award, SERVANTS OF THE MAP, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, ARCHANGEL. Visit her official website at

Customer Reviews

It was a wonderful read that kept me interested from beginning to end.
Sherrie Brownell
Unfortunately the characters are fairly flat and we know so little about them that it's difficult to have much interest for them.
Amazon Customer
I love novels about exploration, especially ones that explore human nature.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By on February 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is about human endeavour and evil, initially set in the hostilities of the Arctic. The first 2/3 of the book is brilliantly written and researched. The semi-historic descriptions of an ill-fated exploration into the depths of the Arctic is fast-paced. Ms Barrett writes clearly and beautifully. I could envision life in that hostile locale, during all seasons; and almost wanted to be there, too. Normally, I am not a reader of such historic novels. She created excellent suspense, too. The last 1/3 revealed the author's weakness. Despite her extensive research into Esquimaux culture, the story plods to an end. I feel that this is due to her inability to develop characters convincingly. She describes events, geography, climate and "history" wonderfully. Much less convincing are the people central to the story. Most are either weak and without usual human passions, or purely evil. She had difficulty concluding the story that became somewhat ponderous, considering the writing skills well demonstrated at the beginning. Humans and their behavior are not her descriptive strength. I really recommend the book. It was a different reading experience for me. I re-read many paragraphs just to let the prose sink in. She understands and describes great beauty in it's many forms. Her knowledge of evil, fundamental to the story, is more conjectural. Very well done, none-the-less!
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By E.S. Kraay on December 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you've never read anything about arctic exploration in the 19th century, this book could be for you. "Voyage of the Narwhal" is a bona fide page turner that demands to be read in as few readings as possible; there never seems to be a convenient place to put the book aside 'until later.' I was always looking forward to the next page.
I knew little and had read even less about this fascinating era of exploration. This book has inspired me to search for more. I disagree with the criticisms of "weak characterizations:" I found the characters very intriguing. I learned to despise Zeke; side with Erasmus; and empathize with Alexa. The subordinate characters came across very well, also.
From a pure entertainment standpoint, I judge the success of a book based on whether or not I could visualize it on the big screen, and, if I could, would I enjoy it. Barrett painted a beautiful film with this book complete with breath-taking action and real live characters that I could see and feel.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Mark Wiklund on November 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The Voyage is a 19th century story told with a 20th century sensibility and style. Written a hundred years ago, the hero would have been Voorhees, the explorer stranded in the arctic and returned a public hero. Instead, today's hero is the Naturalist Erasmus who sees Voorhees for a vain and arrogant fool but is uncomfortable in his own skin, who simmers inside about morality buts commits no action until the tide has turned, who resents the falseness of the world but will take no step to remedy it. Ned and Alexandra were the real heros (in either century!) but they are not the center. Written a hundred years ago, the story would have been a rich, swashbuckling yarn, but in today's style, it is lean and understated and ultimately disappointing. I so much wanted to walk away wow! It seems so many writers would rather we admire their artful minimalism than participate as equals in their real feelings!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By michael jennings on September 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
The Voyage of the Narwhal offers a fascinating "inside-out" look at 19th century explorers and explorations. Andrea Barrett books passage for the reader on the Narwhal, a ship bound for the Arctic in search of a lost explorer and crew. This voyage of rescue and discovery becomes an occasion for the exploration of the hearts and minds of a variety of characters.
The true motivations of the commander of the Narwhal become all too apparant to the crew. The toll taken on their lives in order to satisfy his desire for fame under the guise of rescue and advancement of knowledge is truly heart rending. The complexity of reasons and motivations for the actions of the characters both on the search and those waiting at home illustrates the spectrum of shallowness and depth of human beings. The heart is truly deceitful, who can know it?
The novel continues to develop this theme upon the return home of the survivors. The public, hungry for excitment and news of the voyage, lacks discrimination and makes a hero and a goat of the two main characters. Truth is not what the public wants and adventure is the news of the moment. This climate is not conducive to thoughtful evaluation of the purpose and consequences of exploration and serves to fuel wonderlust and the opportunists who can exploit the moment for their own benefit. The novel raises the question of what is truly gained and lost in efforts of scientific inquiry.
The book can be seen as a revealing critique of the human cost of the advancement of knowledge by the unscrupulous as well as its impact on the people and culture of those being "studied." Much of what is justified on the altar of science, a worthy endeavor when approached with the right motives and principles, is shown to be less than worthy of the human race.
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