1 December, 2022

Our Favorite Historical Novels

Ship Fever, Stories
Andrea Barrett

Somehow, in Andrea Barrett’s fiction, there is an essential and unifying voice regardless of the era she portrays. Her prose style is never lost in the subject, and no more than a subtle shift in language can be discerned between her historical and contemporary stories. Like Jim Shepard and Robert Olen Butler, authors who also range across historical time, place and voice, Barrett writes historical fiction without any significant change to her essential prose style, one that is crisp, clean and highly intimate in tone.

It’s this quality of intimacy, the thoroughness with which the author mines her material, that heightens an aspect of her work I admire most: the setting. I don’t so much mean physical setting—although Barrett’s are to my mind among the best in contemporary fiction— but rather the physical milieus in which the author sets her characters: greenhouses, laboratories, an immigrant hospital in Quebec, a marine research station. These and other locales employed by Barrett comprise less-trod areas of fiction: the world of science, its practitioners, pioneers and scholars of the natural world.

The historical figures in Ship Fever include Gregor Mendel, whose nineteenth century experiments in the hybridization of peas forged the science of genetics. In Barrett’s hands, Mendel’s research (“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds”) becomes an elegant counterpoint to the experience of the narrator, the wife of a genetics professor who regularly lectures on the pioneer’s work. “The English Pupil” centers on the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, whose theory of classification formed the basis of the first naming system of plants, animals and minerals. Linnaeus, now aged and dying, his “once famous memory eroded by strokes,” travels one winter afternoon to his country house outside Uppsala, the once indefatigable cataloger hobbled by stroke:

His mind, which had 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. When he reached for facts they darted like minnows across the water and could only be captured by cunning and indirection.

Among the contemporary subjects in this collection, “The Littoral Zone” is one of the best and most heartbreaking. It charts in present and past threads, the life of Jonathan and Ruby, who as young marine biologists meet on a research station off the New Hampshire Coast. Both married to other people, both with families, they return home and continue the affair, in time divorcing their spouses and marrying each other. It’s a story told in hindsight decades later, a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about memory and desire and the torment of a choice that may not have been the right one:

They can’t remember, now, whether Gunnar’s endless lecture came before Carol Dagliesh’s filmstrip on the herring gulls, or which of the students tipped over the dissecting scope and sent the dish of copepods to their deaths. But both of them remember those days and nights as being almost purely happy. They swam in that odd, indefinite zone where they were more than friends, not yet lovers, still able to deny to themselves that they were headed where they were headed.

If Barrett’s feat of voice weren’t enough, she also delicately links certain stories to one another. The effect is one of an intricate tapestry, or a detailed map, or a carefully considered equation. The collection won the National Book Award in 1996. You can read Barrett’s acceptance speech here.

-Lauren Alwan