Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal gets off to a bit of a slow start–who are these people, and why are they sailing to the Arctic, and why do we care?–but it quickly snowballs, so to speak, into exactly what it promises to be: a literary adventure story with a sprinkling of slightly anachronistic feminism and a large helping of Frankenstein.
There are comparisons to be made to other books of man-vs-nature (Moby Dick, The Heart of Darkness), but the book fundamentally asks what would have happened had Walton refused to turn the ship around. Power-hungry Zeke ignores his crew and captain’s warnings and pushes onward into the Arctic winter, eventually trapping his ship in the ice and losing a rather large percentage of the crew along the way. When protagonist and naturalist Erasmus finally makes his way back home, he finds that, rather than being hailed as heroes, he and the rest of the returning crew are failures: just before their return, another Arctic naturalist and explorer shows up with stories, specimens, and maps.
A few of the book’s conceits ring a bit hollow–the plot involving the woman engraver feels especially anachronistic and forced–but Barrett raises core questions about discovery and exploration and (crucially) who gets to write to the book when everyone returns home. Voyage of the Narhwal doesn’t exactly succeed as a pure adventure story or rich character study, but it offers a highly readable revision of the Romantic quest to dominate nature–and a provoking critique of quests and questors.
Read for: Book club