Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever

Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever started out as the book I was carrying to school as guard against empty periods (see: all my plans to use free periods for planning tend to fall apart because the internet isn’t working, or the director’s office with the printer is locked, or the director’s computer isn’t recognizing my USB), then turned into the book I read before I fell asleep at night, then finally into the book that I was just plain reading. Despite aspects of Barrett’s writing style that trailed and frustrated me from story to story, this is one of the best story collections I can recall reading; with the title novella that closes the collection, Barrett recovers from any and all errors I saw in her writing in the preceding stories.

Barrett’s stories are split about half-and-half in their subject matter, numbers that I’m using broadly to mean that half the stories are set in a fairly contemporary period, and that half are more along the lines of historical fiction. Almost all the stories are concerned with science or with characters who are concerned, even if obliquely, with sciences: they work in medicine or in the sciences, or are close to someone who does.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is about the wife of a professor, a woman whose immigrant grandfather accidentally killed a man (because of her) when she was still a child. Her courtship with her husband, as she tells it, centers on his love of Gregor Mendel and her grandfather having known Mendel; she gives her then-future-husband a letter Mendel had written. Her stories, the stories that her grandfather told her, have been taken by her husband and incorporated into his college lectures, and one of the more interesting points of this sometimes slow story is when she takes the telling back from her husband.

“The English Pupil,” with Carl Linnaeus as its main character, is another slow one, interesting mostly for its vision of a great mind in collapse. See:

His mind, which has once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. (35)

“The Littoral Zone” is, gosh, another slow story, but one that doesn’t offer the rewards of “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.” About a couple who long ago abandoned their respective families in order to be with one another, Barrett is too plain here about their disappointments with their lives. I believe as much as anyone that, whatever writing teachers say, telling can be as powerful as showing when done by the right person; but Barrett here does nearly nothing but tell. After reading a passage like the one below I wanted to scream: “God, just let us see this!”:

They’re sensible people, and very well-mannered; they remind themselves that they were young then and are middle-aged now, and that their fierce attraction would naturally ebb with time. Neither likes to think about how much of the thrill of their early days together came from the obstacles they had to overcome. Some days, when Ruby pulls into the driveway still thinking about her last class and catches sight of Jonathan out in the garden, she can’t believe the heavyset figure pruning shrubs so meticulously is the man for whom she fought such battles. Jonathan, who often wakes very early, sometimes stares at Ruby’s sleeping face and thinks how much more gracefully his ex-wife is aging. (55)

“Rare Bird” is where things began to turn for me in a serious way. Set in the 1760s, the story centers on a woman, Sarah Anne, who was raised with the same education her brother received but finds herself unable to put it to use. She fits neither in the world of the men her brother spends time with, debating the great scientific issues of the day, nor in the world of women like her brother’s fiancee, who were raised to be charming rather than skilled debaters. I could almost feel Sarah Anne’s joy when she meets Catherine, a woman who is similarly learned; “When Catherine is excited, bits of all she has ever read fly off her like water from a churning lump of butter” (74). This story succeeds where the earlier ones fell flat in large part because Barrett leaves so little known at story’s end. What happens to Sarah Anne or to Catherine is unknown, and gives the reader his or her first chance, of this collection, to wonder at the characters and their motivations and where they will land.

“Soroche,” then, a story about Zaga, a widowed second wife disposing of her husband’s estate, is in some ways a disappointment, but the idea of this story and Zaga’s character are striking. Aspects of it are hackneyed (a photo of a three-months pregnant Zaga, hidden by her husband because she lost the baby, discovered by her after his death), and Barrett sometimes tells things too flatly for my liking, but something in this one stuck with me. This passage captures the things I like about the story (the idea of Zaga shedding her husband’s money as a means of freeing herself from her past) and the things I don’t like (that that idea is stated so plainly):

“How did you lose Joel’s money?” they asked. “What could you have been thinking?”

She could not explain that it had nothing to do with thought. It was the buzz, the rush, the antic joy of flinging her old life to the winds. She was abashed by her final loss, adrift and upset – and yet there was also the fact that she had not felt so content in years. Every trace of the life Joel had given her was gone, and she had nothing left to live on but her wits. (98)

“Birds With No Feet,” again offers a striking figure in its main character, Alec Carrière, a traveler and collector of specimens who is keenly aware of his failure to rise above the everyday of his job. He collects specimens with the expectation that the money he earns from them will “finally set him free to pursue his studies in peace” (102), but his travels are a catalogue of misfortunes: illness, fire, not having the scientific mind of his contemporaries, forever being second in his findings, coming from a country that is falling into civil war and no longer has an interest in his specimens or the live Birds of Paradise he brings home to a wrecked nation. This is a gorgeous story with some striking images, as when Alec and another character are ill and alternate “bouts of fever as if they were playing lawn-tennis” (112).

“The Marburg Sisters” is, gosh, just weird, and I’m still not sure what I think of it. The narrative voice threw me off, for one; parts of the story are written in the first-person plural, by one of the Marburg sisters, but both sisters are referred to in the third-person. As in:

The rest of the night is mostly lost to us now, but we remember a handful of things. Sometime before dawn we either did or didn’t call our father, waking him to beg him not to sell the winery. But why would we have done this, if we did it? Rose would not have wanted to echo the phone call Bianca claimed to have made the night before, and even if she’d forgotten that, the winery was not a place we ever visited. (135)

I can in theory understand the desire to leave it unclear which of the sisters is narrating sections of the story, or even to suggest that the sisters are acting as a kind of dual narrator, their two voices forming one, but the whole feel of it is weird and unpleasant. Along with other things, like how this key section of the story (see: communion with dead mother) is repeatedly stressed as being a huge and potentially shattering secret, but which never seems that shattering or that much of a secret, more just wacky and druggy. But because we’re told, again and again, that this is a big thing, we have to believe it, despite never seeing any real evidence to support this notion of Big Deal-ness the whole event has.

Then, at last, we come to “Ship Fever,” the novella closing the collection, and man is it a good close. About ten pages into “Ship Fever” I’d forgotten about “The Marburg Sisters” and how duped I felt when I got to the end of it (I read the whole story? What for?). “Ship Fever” is about the Irish Potato Famine, about people who are trying to do things that are right because they feel right to them or look right to others, about the ways that against something as huge as the famine and the resulting mass emigration from Ireland human action can be insignificant, but for the stories of changed lives that emerge from the filth. The story centers on Dr. Lauchlin Grant, who finds that his medical studies abroad limit his practice in Canada, where bloodletting is still regarded as the height of medical care, and who is in love with, and in many ways trying to live up to, a childhood friend who is now married to a man reporting on the potato famine, a man so confident “of his place in the world that he signed everything, even his newspaper articles, with those initials [AA]” (161). Lauchlin accepts a job at the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, which is overwhelmed with shiploads of the sick and dying. Some of the best passages in this collection are those describing the sight of these ships stretching down the river, in which the water is barely visible for all the contaminated bedding that has been thrown overboard. “Ship Fever” is a beautiful story, and it’s worth reading the collection just for this one, in which Lauchlin’s impulsive decision to pull one woman off a ship and into the overcrowded “hospital” on the island frames his character, without Barrett ever needing to tell us that this is what is going on.

Barrett’s main failing in these stories is a tendency to state things flat-out rather than leaving them to the reader, a fault that she only rarely commits in “Ship Fever.” Barrett’s writing improves at length, something that gives me some hope for the day I decide to explore one of her novels. I am not sure whether the stories really became better as I worked through the collection, or if it’s more than I grew into Barrett’s writing style as I went along. Whatever it is, I’m glad that I read through to the extraordinary “Ship Fever.”

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