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Archangel: Fiction Paperback – July 7, 2014
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From Publishers Weekly
Barrett, whose novel Ship Fever won the 1996 National Book Award, dwells on the intersections between science (her interests include genetics, astronomy, and zoology) and ethics (love, purpose, solace). Her training in biology and her meticulous research allow Barrett to speak of facts with authority, but in this powerful collection of five long stories, the facts come through the eyes of lost, lonely, elusive investigators. In The Ether of Space, set in 1920, astronomer Phoebe Wells struggles with the implications of Einstein's theories; in The Island, set in 1873, young biologist Henrietta Atkins, initially worshipful of a creationist professor, succumbs to Darwinism. As is typical of Barrett's work, characters overlap. A 12-year-old boy catching his first sight of aeroplanes in The Investigators, set in 1908, is encountered again as a WWI soldier in the excellent title story, where he sees planes bombing his camp. At times, Barrett's exercises in defamiliarization falter, leaving us with a barrage of historic-scientific details; at others, her ruminative observers remain too elusive to be believed, with loneliness and enigma crossing into tropes. But these few missteps don't counter the overall power of the book; there is indeed a sense of expansion as one travels onward in Barrett's world, and pleasure in watching it fill out. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman. (Aug.) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* National Book Award winner Barrett (The Air We Breathe, 2007) returns to the short story in her first collection since Servants of the Map (2002), drawing on her fascination with science, the wellspring for her discerning, imaginative, and tender fiction. In the dazzling opening story, young Constantine is liberated from his troubled Detroit home to spend the summer of 1908 helping his dynamic uncle with his experimental farm in a New York State village of exuberant “investigators” busy building and flying an airplane that wins a Scientific American trophy. In the book’s staggering finale, Constantine reappears as a wounded soldier in 1919 stationed in the remote Russian town of Archangel. In between, Barrett incisively portrays women intent on breaking into the male-dominated scientific realm, including intrepid teacher Henrietta Atkins, two science writers, and one of the first X-ray technicians. Reveling in technical innovations and tectonic shifts in ideas and perceptions, Barrett dramatizes the impassioned conflicts engendered by the discoveries of Mendel, Darwin, and Einstein along with the toxic politics of science while celebrating the sharing of knowledge. Most movingly, she considers the subtle ways that, as one character expresses it, “science was influenced by feeling.” Barrett’s consummate historical stories of family, ambition, science, and war are intellectually stimulating, lushly emotional, and altogether pleasurable. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
These five long stories--they range from 30 to almost 60 pages each--are linked to one another, though sometimes so subtly that it's only after finishing them that we fully realize the connections. Constantine Boyd, the boy who lodges with his mother's brother in the summer of 1908, is enthralled by the curiosity of scientific investigation, and sees one of the first manned flights. We see him later, using that knowledge in a wholly different way.
Phoebe Cornelius tries to puzzle out the materiality of the ether that some straggling scientists still were claiming in 1920 lay at the heart of the universe. Her son, Sam, later takes his own sometimes faltering steps beyond conventional scientific thinking, and suffers for his pains.
And the title story, set amid the Allied Intervention in northern Russia in 1919--Barrett resurrects a long-forgotten, and hopeless, war against the Bolsheviks with poignant and brutal clarity--isn't so much about science as learning to live with uncertainty. And this just scratches the surface of these luminous stories, whose complexities are enriching and engrossing.
Knowing some science history will deepen the connection to the characters and their stories. I had recently read Sam Kean's "The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code," which helped me appreciate the story "The Particles" that much more. But it's not necessary. In the end, the stories are about people intersecting with new knowledge and how they assimilate it into their lives. This is the best fiction I've reading ages, a reminder of the rich possibilities of the genre in the hands of a master writer.
I don't want to give the impression that one has to know science-- evolution, genetics, astronomy shine in these stories-- to love this book. The characters come alive and we readers come to care about them as individuals, who, like all of us, struggle with their ambitions, their feelings, their relationships. I couldn't recommend this book more highly!