Ship Fever, a collection of short stories by Andrea Barrett. I finished it this afternoon and I’ve been in a daze ever since. Wow!
The sentence I previously quoted from the opening story about “science . . . bent by loneliness and longing” pretty much sums up the whole collection. That’s what these stories are about: science, bent by loneliness and longing. Each one is about some aspect of science — biology — and most are set in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century. Recurring themes include intelligent, interesting women who are stifled by society’s sexist conventions; frustrated men who feel inadequate in comparison to their peers; the beauty of the natural world.
A lot of these stories are not really my style, apart from the subject matter and gorgeous prose. They are the kind of stories that (I guess) are meant to capture a moment in time, or to illuminate a certain mood or relationship. Not much actually happens. “The English Pupil,” for example, consists almost entirely of the meandering stream of consciousness of a very elderly, senile Carl Linnaeus:
Rotheram. Rotheram. The sound was like the wind moving over the Lappland hills. Rotheram, one of his pupils, not a fiancé at all. Human beings had two names, like plants, by which they might be recalled. Nature was a cryptogram and the scientific method a key; nature was a labyrinth and this method the thread of Ariadne. Or the world was an alphabet written in God’s hand, which he, Carl Linnaeus, had been called to decipher. One of his pupils had come to see him, one of the pupils he’d sent to all the corners of the world and called, half-jokingly, his apostles. This one straightened now, a few feet away, most considerately not blocking the fire. What was his name? He was young, vigorous, strongly built. Was he Lofling, then? Or Ternstrom, Hasselquist, Falck?
“The world was an alphabet written in God’s hand.” I just love that. And the idea that Linnaeus’ classification scheme was a way to decipher God’s alphabet — or that he believed that it was — is extremely moving. Plot: not necessary.
The last story, “Ship Fever,” actually a novella, was the best of all. This one had plenty of action to go with the gorgeous prose and fascinating subject matter. This was about a horrible episode in history that I’d never heard about before. In 1847 when Irish immigrants fled the potato famine they arrived in Canada bringing with them a typhus (”ship fever”) epidemic. I believe the reason they were arriving in Canada is because the U.S. turned them away. And Canada might as well have turned them away, too. The ships were sent to an island, supposedly to be quarantined, but the resources the government provided to care for these people were so pitifully inadequate that they couldn’t follow the quarantine rules and the typhus spread to Montreal, Quebec, and wherever else the immigrants ended up.
The story is told mainly from the point of view of the insecure young doctor helping on the island. The descriptions of the sickness, the living conditions on the ships and on the island, the false beliefs about contagion and hygiene and the nature of disease, are extremely painful to read. But set against this gruesome backdrop is the story of the doctor’s inner journey from immaturity to wisdom, not to mention all the men and women who risked their own lives for the sake of these dying, penniless, nameless immigrants. (And an ironic aside: at the end, one of the penniless immigrants who survives decides to get away from the evil country of Canada and go to Detroit, a city of hope, opportunities, new beginnings. Whereas I — born and raised and still living within commuting distance of the godforsaken hopeless urban blight that is Detroit — have always thought of Canada as this paradise where same-sex couples marry, native tribes govern themselves, and everyone has free health care and reads Robertson Davies all day long!)
I read Barrett’s novel The Voyage of the Narwhal some years ago. I don’t remember too much about it. I know I mostly liked it, but also thought it had some annoying flaws related to its structure as a novel. I do remember thinking at the time that maybe she’d be better off writing short stories (or getting a better editor). I don’t know if her novels have improved since Narwhal, but I can tell you that these short stories are well worth your time.
The consensus seems to be that I should ditch My Life as a Fake for now. I agree. Next on my stack is Esther, by Henry Adams.