Ship Fever offers up eight stories–the title tale is a novella–whose overall effect Thomas Mallon of the New York Book Review calls “quietly dazzling.” I can’t improve on that phrase. Andrea Barrett has made a career of marrying the worlds of science and of fiction, and all of these stories occur in worlds that at least purport to be scientific and terrestrial, but whose boundaries turn out to be illusory.
In “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” for example, it’s Mendel and genetics; in “Birds With No Feet,” it’s the world of the naturalist and of evolutionary theory; in “Ship Fever” it’s typhoid. Every single one of the stories is carefully researched, often connected to an historical event or period. And in every single one, Barrett singles out someone who lives and thinks outside the norm, challenges or ignores or simply can’t live with convention, and who suffers for the debility.
Take Sarah Anne in “Rare Bird,” an intelligent, educated woman full of theories and thoughts on all kinds of scientific matters, but relegated to housework and waiting on her brother and his male claque of scientific pretenders. She sets out to prove that swallows (this is 1762) don’t hibernate beneath the ice when they disappear in winter. Her experiments lead to surprising and mysterious results. Or Jonathan and Ruby in “The Littoral Zone,” whose scientific expedition ends most unscientifically. Or “Birds With No Feet,” wherein a passionate and persistent collector keeps being overshadowed by a colleague who manages to develop theories while he mounts and stuffs his specimens and thus keep poor Alec in his shadow. A human example in science of terrific not being good enough, especially when you don’t time the universe quite right.
Barrett has a Munro-like ability to move her story and her character with few scenes, just the right ones. Her language is clean and spare:
For thirty years, until he retired, my husband stood each fall in front of his sophomore genetics class and passed out copies of Gregor Mendel’s famous paper on the hybridization of edible peas. This paper was a model of clarity, Richard told his students. It represented everything that science should be.
With this opening paragraph of Ship Fever’s opening story, one might say that Barrett herself has presented a model of clarity. A model for all that follows in the book, and, indeed, a representation of much that good writing should be.