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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Voyage Of The Narwhal

"Like children, they gave their names to the landscape, pretending to discover places her people had known for generations."

Near the end of Andrea Barrett's thoughtful novel "The Voyage of the Narwhal" (1998), the wealthy commander of  the Narwhal's ill-fated expedition to the Arctic decides to bring two Greenland natives back with him to Philadelphia. His aim? To display these "exotic" people to his mid-19th century contemporaries. His arrogance supersedes his hubris and both are trumped by his racism. As the woman torn from her family lies dying from exposure to the radically different climate, she yearns for home, musing about a landscape white explorers have childishly named after themselves.

Barrett's skillful toggling between the actual writings of Arctic explorers from the Victorian era - not a real progressive bunch - and the fictional journals and letters of her characters gives this book a journalistic flavor. The illustrations that open each of the three acts and eleven chapters serve a similar function. From a narrative perspective, the book came most alive for me in the final 100 pages as the main character, naturalist Erasmus Wells, begins to find his way at forty+ years old - felt uncomfortably albeit distinctly familiar.

Still, after finishing it, I immediately returned and re-read several earlier sections. How often do you find yourself doing that? In my experience, doing so is a sure sign a book is going to stick with me.

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