The elegant short fictions gathered hereabout the love of science and the science of love are often set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century. Interweaving historical and fictional characters, they encompass both past and present as they negotiate the complex territory of ambition, failure, achievement, and shattered dreams. In "Ship Fever," the title novella, a young Canadian doctor finds himself at the center of one of history's most tragic epidemics. In "The English Pupil," Linnaeus, in old age, watches as the world he organized within his head slowly drifts beyond his reach. And in "The Littoral Zone," two marine biologists wonder whether their life-altering affair finally was worth it. In the tradition of Alice Munro and William Trevor, these exquisitely rendered fictions encompass whole lives in a brief space. As they move between interior and exterior journeys, "science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange and thrilling fictional material" (Boston Globe).
"The Behavior of the Hawkweeds" is a story of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and how his disillusionment with science is mirrored by the growing alienation between a professor and his wife. I thought this was an excellent opening story that set the tone for the entire volume quite well: they're stories about science, but they're not about science so much as the people doing to the science, and how that science can echo through time, and affect - or reflect - the lives of the people it touches.
"The English Pupil" focuses on the dying days of Carl Linnaeus, as he reflects over all of the eager young naturalists who died pursuing the passion that he instilled in them. This story was very sad, but also very interesting - I don't think I'd ever learned about Linnaeus's students, or what happened to them - but it's no wonder that Barrett chose them as the subject of a story. Full of pathos, and very, very human.
"The Littoral Zone" is a story of memory and relationships and reconstruction, as a married couple think about the events that took them away from their first marriages and brought them together. It's a story about the tiny threads of regret and sadness that linger even in what we would call a happy life, and the overall tone is almost melancholy. I did love that it was set at the same marine field station where I spent a summer during college, though.
"Rare Bird" is a story of a young woman in the 1760s, interested in science and natural history but kept from their pursuit by her gender. This was easily my favorite story, most likely because I had the easiest time identifying with the protagonist, and of all of the stories, it was the only one that I thought leaned more towards hope than bleakness.
"Soroche" involves a woman cast adrift within a family that doesn't belong to her, and contrasts her lot with Jemmy Button, one of the native Fuegians who was aboard the Beagle with Darwin. As a story, or a character study, this one was excellently crafted and very intriguing. However, I felt like it had to stretch to draw the historical parallels, and so the message of the story wound up feeling more labored than it needed to be.
"Birds with No Feet" is the story of a young naturalist/collector who was working in the Malay Archipelago at the same time as Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection contemporaneously with Darwin. I liked this story quite a bit, mostly for the glances it gave us of Wallace, who is a fascinating figure, and has been largely - and unfairly - eclipsed by Darwin in the history of science.
"The Marburg Sisters" tells the tale of two estranged sisters returning home to care for their dying father. It's the only story that doesn't particularly involve the history of science, and therefore felt a bit out of place. It was also my least favorite; I didn't particularly care for either Rose or Bianca, and the inconsistent use of the first-person plural bugged me.
"Ship Fever" is set during the typhus epidemic in Canada following the influx of Irish immigrants during the Great Potato Famine. A young and idealistic doctor is called to help at the quarantine station, only to find conditions worse than he expected and deteriorating rapidly, with no guarantee that help is coming, or that the city he calls home will remain unaffected. Harrowing and thoroughly engrossing.
Overall Review and Recommendation: This is the first of Barrett's work I've read, but it won't be the last. Her prose is lovely, striking just the right balance between economy and sparseness, and oftentimes cutting to the bone with a single well-crafted phrase. Her characterization, even in the limited space of a short story, is rich and complex, and she's capable of evoking a surprising amount of emotion in the same short period.
This book probably requires a certain mood to really enjoy - the tone of most of the stories is certainly stark, if not outrightly bleak, and by the time I finished it, I felt like I'd made several passes through the emotional wringer. Still, each of the stories, even the short ones, had a certain heft, a certain gravity to it, and in sum, they added up to a thoroughly compelling read. 4 out of 5 stars.