The voyage of the Narwhal : a novel

by Andrea Barrett

Hardcover, 1998





New York : W.W. Norton, c1998.


In 1885 Erasmus Darwin Wells embarks an expedition to the Arctic to search for the explorer, John Franklin. Erasmus' fears of failure seem to be realized when the voyage threatens to turn violent.

Media reviews

Barrett's marvelous achievement is to have reimagined so graphically that cusp of time when Victorian certainty began to question whether it could encompass the world with its outward-bound enthusiasm alone -- when it started to glimpse the dark ballast beneath the iceberg's dazzling tip.
2 more
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. 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 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.
Like "Ship Fever," "Narwhal" showcases Ms. Barrett's gifts for extracting high drama from the complex world of science and natural history and for placing her characters in situations that reveal their fundamental natures. Indeed, "Narwhal" is an adventure story in the way that Conrad's "Lord Jim" and "The Nigger of the Narcissus" are adventure stories: the story's extreme conditions and harrowing experiences, which make for such gripping reading, are actually moral and spiritual tests that strip away the characters' public masks and expose their innermost drives and fears.

User reviews

LibraryThing member veronicay
I discovered Andrea Barrett via this thoroughly researched narrative about 19th-century Arctic exploration, and she's now one of the authors whose work I snap up as soon as it appears in hardback. Her talent is in combining science with literature in a fascinating and accessible way. Here she manages to combine 19th-century concerns (emancipation of slaves, theories of evolution, an obsession with the Arctic) with more modern ones -- the role of women (who have to stay at home and wait), personal growth, cultural imperialism, and how 'truth' is relative. She reminds me of George Eliot in the way that she takes a generous view even of the least admirable characters. Early in the novel, her main character, Erasmus Wells, a repressed and unsuccessful 40-something naturalist, writes:

"If I drew that scene I'd show everything happening at once ... But when I describe it in words one thing follows another and everything's shaped by my single pair of eyes, my single voice. I wish I could show it as if 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."

This is how the novel is written -- it doesn't always work (notably in the case of trying to put across the experience of an Eskimo woman transplanted to Philadelphia). But it does give you a sense of the many different versions of reality, and it is beautifully written.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I chose to read this book because I have always been fascinated with polar exploration & doomed expeditions. I thought that this was what this book was about. And in a minor way, it is. But truthfully, it goes way beyond this expectation and way beyond this particular story line.

In 1855, all the news is about the missing Franklin expedition, gone to seek the north pole in the age of discovery. From Philadelphia, Zeke Voorhees is mounting an expedition to either find Franklin or find some evidence that Franklin is dead. Among the crew is Zeke's soon to be brother in law, Erasmus Darwin Wells. Erasmus is a naturalist; not a famous one by any stretch. This voyage would be a chance for Erasmus to make something of himself; he had earlier served on a Pacific/Antarctic expedition with a captain who tormented the crew & then stole the work Erasmus had done. Erasmus felt that there was nothing he could have done at the time to stop any of it. Erasmus has also been charged by his sister Lavinia to take care of Zeke no matter what happens and bring him back to her to marry so that she can find happiness in being his wife. This is a promise that Erasmus takes very seriously; as it turns out, much to his detriment.

Up in the Arctic waters, the expedition finds evidence of Franklin & of his death; thus everyone assumes that it is now time to go home & everyone is glad to be leaving. But out of nowhere, Zeke realizes that he has not left a mark by which to be remembered; so he orders the captain & crew to sail farther north, so that he can go well beyond the areas previously explored & find fame for himself. Everyone objects but since he is the leader of the expedition & all are paid by him, the crew is forced to follow his orders. Unfortunately, where he decides to stop the ship is just where the ice is the most impenatrable after the season starts; they are stuck there and must winter there. Tragedy ensues; at the point at which the crew wants to leave and the opportunity begins to present itself, Zeke refuses to let the expedition end; he asks for volunteers to go with him to seek help from the Eskimos that wander the Arctic in that area. No one will go with him. He tells them when he will be back; he doesn't return and the crew has to leave without him. On arriving home, Erasmus is filled with guilt & is shamed by everyone who believes he left Zeke to die, since Zeke had put him in charge if anything happened.

This is also a story about one man's ambition and its cost... I won't go into details but suffice it to say that decisions are made that affect each and every man not only aboard ship, but others too once the voyage is over. It also deals with one man's need to redeem himself, regardless of the consequences.

I can easily highly recommend this novel. It was incredible. Some readers may not like the tone of this no time do we "cozy up" to the characters, but I believe the author does this on purpose. So if you're looking for warm fuzzies, don't bother with this book. Otherwise, take your time and enjoy it.
… (more)
LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Erasmus Wells always wanted to be an explorer and naturalist, but his first experience with a collecting expedition in which the captain claimed credit for all of Erasmus's work has left him somewhat bitter. But now he's offered the chance to go on another expedition - to the Arctic this time - ostensibly to look for signs of a previous polar expedition that had disappeared without a trace the year before. It's being captained by Zeke, a young man raised in the Wells family, sweetheart to Erasmus's sister, and with a fierce drive to make a name for himself. This drive leads to tensions between the members of the expedition party and the crew of the Narwhal, the ship they've hired to take them to the far reaches of the North. And then when a disastrous decision means that the crew must overwinter in the Arctic, trapped in the ice throughout the endless night, Erasmus must face where his loyalties and his principles truly lie.

Review: I found this book really interesting, and very well written, but not exactly enjoyable. It (like Andrea Barrett's other books) was chock-full of the history of science. Erasmus and the Narwhal were fictional, but many other aspects of the story were not, and the Narwhal felt like a vivid and realistic representation of something that could have happened. Similarly, the characters were discussing and debating many of the scientific theories of the day, in such a way as to really give the reader a feeling for what the general zeitgeist of the time was. The details about the daily life of the expedition Barrett provided were excellent, and woven into the fabric of the story in such a way as to build the world of the Narwhal and its trials (and the world of the Philidelphia society they were coming from) up around me. This was done so effectively that it actually made me claustrophobic at times, particularly during the portion of the book where the Narwhal is stuck in the ice. This was probably made worse by the fact that I was reading the audiobook - I typically find audiobooks more immersive than print, and so there were times I would have to turn it off, shake myself, and remind myself that it was in the 80s and sunny outside, and that I was in no imminent danger of going insane while slowly freezing to death. (So while that was a point in favor of the audiobook, in general, this is one book where I'd recommend reading the print version. I found the narrator's pace of speaking to be intolerably slow - thank goodness for Audible's 1.25x speed button!) Barrett's writing was also really lovely, and felt believably authentic, its tone well-matched to the period.

However, while I was interested and engaged by the book, it's hard to say that I really enjoyed the experience of reading it, and that's down entirely to a lack of truly likable characters (some of the secondary characters - Ned Kind, and Dr. Boorhave, and Alexandra - were generally likable, but it wasn't enough to salvage things). Zeke drove me crazy - I don't think I've ever rooted harder for a mutiny to happen - and while Erasmus was mostly sympathetic, he was too waffly and hand-wringing for my tastes, especially when it came to matters involving Zeke. I suppose if he'd grown a spine sooner, it would have been a much shorter book, but ARGH! This book did make for an interesting book club, with lots of fodder for discussion about the attitudes of the time, and the nature of loyalty, and what Zeke's motivations were and whether we thought those were believable, and why Erasmus didn't just tip Zeke over the side already and tell everyone that he'd been eaten by a polar bear. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I like books about the history of science and the history of exploration, so this novel was straight up my alley. If you also like those things, I definitely think this is worth reading, even if it was a little crazy-making at times.
… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
This book has it all: man vs. man, man vs. nature and love story all rolled into one real page-turner; a great story of Arctic adventures, both real and fictional. Erasmus Wells accompanies his sister's fiance on an Arctic voyage in the late 1800's to discover what happened to previous explorer, John Franklin. His brother-in-law to be and ship's commander, Zeke, however, has bigger plans. He forces the crew to winter-over in the Arctic (unplanned) to further search for an open polar sea. The crew rebels, after Zeke fails to get started home when the weather and seas break after 18 months. He goes on his own on foot and when he doesn't return by the time he said he would, the crew abandons the ship and heads for home on foot and with sledges. This part of the story was RIVETING. Barrett made me feel as if I was in the Arctic myself. At home, Lavinia (Zeke's fiance) and Alexandra, who is a companion for Olivia, wait. The crew makes it back without Zeke, who is presumed dead, and the resolution of the story starts at this point. Excellent!… (more)
LibraryThing member wandering_star
Re-reading this after watching a nature programme about the poles - the images of the beautiful, fierce ice made me want to pick it up again. It's a wonderful book - full of complex people and ideas, but so easy to read. I've spent a lot of the last two days stuck on delayed trains and malfunctioning underground services, but immersed in this, I haven't minded too much!… (more)
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Barrett, Andrea. The Voyage of the Narwhal. W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998. Very similar in style to Ship Fever. Andrea Barrett's fiction is great at capturing the "Age of Discovery," and I love the sense of romance that she can attach to science.
LibraryThing member anyanwubutler
I loved reading this author’s short fiction about scientists in Ship Fever, when I found this online for little money I bought it. This novel is about a fictional naturalist with the great name Erasmus Darwin Wells going on an exploring ship to the Arctic a few years after Franklin disappeared. He travels with a boyhood friend, Zeke, with more ambition than sense. The trip, from the first seems doomed. They meet Inuit with trinkets from Franklin’s ship, just miss Kane (another Arctic explorer) by days, and have to winter in the Arctic. With the crew ready to mutiny Zeke goes off by himself, forcing Erasmus to get them home. The ship is iced in, they can’t get the specimens he’s been collecting and Zeke allowed Erasmus’ good friend the doctor to die. But Erasmus does get them home. This is great book, a novel of ideas, about what science and discovery is all about.… (more)
LibraryThing member scarpettajunkie
The Voyage of the Narwhal is the fictional story of the Narwhal and its expedition to rescue the Franklin expedition. The story starts in May of 1855 through August of 1858.

We also learn about Lavinia and Alexandra, the sister and friend left behind the Narwhal in Philadelphia.

This story explores people's dreams and desires as well as the restrictions of class, the battle with obsessions, and the clash of different cultures.

I like how this story ends on a haunting note that almost makes the whole book. There is also a bit of a love story underneath all the adventure and difficulties encountered. This story is a keeper and gets the big thumbs up.
… (more)
LibraryThing member CookieDemon
*This review also appears on*

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.

Another device used is women waiting at home for their men to return from sea, a common theme in this type of book, but one that I think is used to great effect here. I appreciated Alexandra as a character and as a person who tries to make the best of things, but I found Lavinia to be incredibly vapid and a bit one-dimensional and I didn't like her at all. I also have to say, that I did sense the twist that was coming towards the end, and for me, the book troughed a little once the explorers were on dry land, though this was to be expected of course.

The story is rife with details of life on board a ship and society at the time as well as looking at the Esquimaux culture, but thankfully the authors research does not come across as reading too much like a history textbook and is instead conveys a wealth of interesting information to the reader. I feel that I actually learned something in reading this book and it has piqued my interest in reading more books in this genre in future.

By one token a gripping adventure story, yet on the other hand a great tale of human insight and character study, this is a book I am pleased that I eventually gave a chance. I would recommend this if you enjoy well written historical fiction or have an interest in maritime history.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bluesviola
adventurous tale of explorers and their travels gone awry by an egocentric captain. Very engrossing. Lots of good detail and emotion without the endless babling of other historians.
LibraryThing member debnance
Boy, I don't know how to rate this one.At first, I loved it. Then about a chapter into it, I realized this book isneither history or historical fiction. I suddenly became very irritated withit. I vowed to plug on.I unexpectedly got quite caught up in the story (who will survive? who willmarry?) and followed it to the very end.This author writes well. She tells a nice story.But in the end, I didn't really care about the characters (oh, well, heperished in the ice...)This book reminds me of the way I felt about The Corrections. The author isexcellent at copying a paint-by-numbers picture onto another piece of paperand painting in each part the right color. None of the numbers show. Butwhen you look at the picture, you know somehow that it was taken fromsomewhere, that it wasn't drawn from the heart.Does that make any sense?I rate Voyage of the Narwhal a 7.… (more)
LibraryThing member atheist_goat
It's like The Terror but determined to be an Important Novel (yes, it was written first, but I read The Terror first and so was biased that way), and consequently frankly less interesting. Also, an Important Novel should not pull the same "Inuits as symbols of The Mysterious Land The White Man Cannot Master as opposed to, you know, human characters" shtick. Though, to be fair, the white characters were all pretty one-dimensional too: the Amoral Glory Seeker; the Noble Peasant Boy; the Sensitive Scientist; the Faithful Woman Left Behind, etc.… (more)
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
adventure + tragedy + love on arctic adventure — flora + fauna — desires of people in exploration. 1855's what they wanted — fame — hero of the day — starts out searching for lost ship, new discoveries, men lost — Zeke brings back Eskimos

Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal's crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet the women left behind in Philadelphia, explorers only in imagination. Together, those who travel and those who stay weave a web of myth and mystery, finally discovering what they had not sought, the secrets of their own hearts.… (more)
LibraryThing member otterley
This may be considered a book of two halves - the voyage of the narwhal, and the return of its crew. Of these I much preferred the former - but then I have a taste for polar adventure. Books set in the confines of a crowded boat are always rich pickings for character driven narrative, conflict, violence and loss. Scientific discovery in the C19th is fertile territory for musings about our human nature, and for enumerating our outworn norms (phrenology anyone?) And there is much to describe of wonder and of horror. A largely fruitless scientific and exploratory voyage to discover what had occurred to John Franklin's ships turns full circle to become a voyage into the human heart and into the back country of the most civilised nation on the planet.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Enjoyed the internal and external journeys in this book. Beautifully told. I found it a bit unsettling because it is a historical novel woven with a more classical character novel. Perhaps I have read so many Arctic and Antarctic journals and the author has done such a good job, I found it hard to read as a fiction as it feels so genuine.… (more)
LibraryThing member BooksCatsEtc
Another novel that's an excellent mix of science, history and good writing. Barrett is possibly my favorite living author.
LibraryThing member mamzel
Based on the heroic explorations to find a Northwest passage, this story is about two men who were trying to discover the fate of a previous expedition of (historic) Sir John Franklin and his ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Another (hisotir) explorer, Dr. Kane, had headed off in one direction but (fictitious) Erasmus Wells and Zeke Vorhees thought they would have a better chance searching in a different area. Erasmus was raised and educated to be a naturalist and was primarily interested in recording the flora and fauna found in these extreme regions. Zeke was kind of a wannabe, had intruded his was into Erasmus' family, enchanted his sister, Lavinia, and figured he could make his fortune lecturing and writing books about his discoveries. His only previous experience at sea was crossing the Atlantic from Scotland. Erasmus had accompanied an expedition to the South Seas and the Antarctic. He was responsible for stocking the ship with enough stores to last the voyage and possible overwintering.

Soon after departing, however, Zeke showed his true colors and it became evident to Erasmus that he was going to be elbowed out of any possible glory. The reader follows the group as they poke along the coast looking for evidence of the previous explorer. Zeke insisted they go further north and it was little surprise when they were caught by the ice. Preparations were made to collect as much meat as they could to supplement their supplies and fuel was carefully portioned to last until they were free of ice again. As spring began to slowly melt the ice, Zeke wanted to go overland for one last chance to find anything. At this point no one wanted to explore any further but wanted to wait and leave when possible. They waited for days after his promised return and finally left without him carrying a boat by sledge over the ice to open water when possible. They eventually met some whaling ships and one offered to bring those who wanted, a trip home. Some of the crew wanted to try and recoup some money by continuing with the whalers and sealers. Erasmus went home to tell his sister that Zeke had not survived.

Recovering from lost toes and defeat, Erasmus slowly came back to living and writing and recording all he had seen. But a surprise was in store for him. Zeke was not dead.

This was an interesting look into the era of exploration and brave men going where no one had gone before, before there were improvements in clothing and navigation and other means of making such a trip possible. It was also a time when people went to lectures to listen to such explorers and relive their adventures through their words. It was a time when what they saw was recreated laboriously by hand in engravings and paintings.
… (more)
LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A (fictional) expedition sets out to look for John Franklin, the well-known British explorer who went missing with his ships while trying to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition is led by both Zeke, a young man whose father is funding the trip, and a captain who is in charge of the boat. Zeke has never been to the Arctic but has read all the accounts he can find. The captain is a whaler, not an Arctic explorer. Needless to say, having two leaders, especially these two, causes endless problems.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Zeke's friend and future brother-in-law Erasmus, whose naturalist-trained family Zeke has dreamed of joining since he was a child. Erasmus is older and has been on several expeditions, including one to Antarctica. He feels obligated to accompany Zeke at his sister's behest, but it's difficult to support Zeke, who clearly doesn't have a clue about handling men or dealing with emergencies and proceeds to antagonize everyone on board. Crises show Zeke's true colors and shortcomings and throw the expedition into disarray, an especially dangerous situation in the Arctic. Several other characters' viewpoints are interspersed, but this is really Erasmus' story.

Highly recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Nickelini
The voyage of the title is a major fictitious Arctic trek in search of the Franklin expedition, set in the mid-1800s. Erasmus is a 40 year old naturalist, who tries to aid the ship's commander (and his future brother-in-law), Zeke. Things go wrong, and then get worse, and instead of using his brains, Zeke's megalomania takes over and he steers them down a dangerous path, fuelled by his delusions of grandeur. Eventually, some of the crew return home to their families, but that doesn't solve the problems that began on the ship.

The Voyage of the Narwhal has gathered many rave reviews here at LT, so I was disappointed I didn't like this one. If I could only write a one-word review, I would say "boring." I never felt compelled to listen to this audiobook, and in fact I often looked at my iPhone and asked "how much longer?" There is nothing technically wrong with the story or writing--I just found it very flat and uninteresting. How one makes Arctic exploration uninteresting, I don't know. The Voyage of the Narwhal was nominated for the Orange prize, so I was expecting something more literary.

Recommended for: Most people seem to like this one. If you like straightforward historical fiction, or are fascinated by Arctic voyages, give it a try.
… (more)
LibraryThing member novawalsh
While the historical and scientific detail were incredible in this book, I felt like there was too much. The characters were interesting and their struggles were difficult to read through but overall I enjoyed the book other than what felt like a lot of data dumping.
LibraryThing member BigNess
This book definitely sparked an interest in the "Northwest Passage" and the Franklin Expedition. For months I had lots of these sytle of books on inter library loan, trying to find out more of the history. Nothing satisfied my curiosity as much as this novel did, and yet it left so much unanswered. It took awhile for me to get into the writing style. I would love to own it and re-read it one day.… (more)



Page: 0.3967 seconds