First Published: 1998 (Kindle ed. 2012 by Fourth Estate)
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “Do you ever feel this in your travels out west? That all the unexplored parts of the world are closing their doors; that so many of us, traveling so far, cannot avoid crossing each other’s paths and repeating each other’s discoveries?”
Re-imaginings of historical polar expeditions frequently entice by offering a subtly shifted perspective on a familiar tale. In many cases they also offer the morbid lure of train wreck fiction, the reader unable to avert their gaze as carriages hurtle inexorably towards disaster. By contrast, novels about fictional polar expeditions generate a different frisson, the shiver of uncertainty, of uncharted waters: how it will end? Who will survive? Andrea Barrett’s subtle and compelling novel takes as its point of departure the many expeditions launched in the mid nineteenth-century to search for John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror – initially as would be rescuers, and later just in a quest for relics and for answers. To this often ill-prepared flotilla, Barrett adds the fictional Philadelphian brig Narwhal and an expedition led by two very different personalities: the egotistical Zeke Vorhees, journeying for fame and glory, and his future brother in law, the pensive, withdrawn naturalist Erasmus Wells. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Erasmus, professionally sensitive to every intricate detail of the flora and fauna he encounters and yet consistently misjudging the motivations and emotions of other human beings.
In Erasmus’ company, what begins in the typical mould of an icy adventure narrative gradually morphs into a much more nuanced and melancholy meditation on the exploitation of the wilderness and of the Arctic peoples. Barrett trained in biology and even began a PhD in zoology before beginning to write fiction and this scientific grounding clearly informs her writing. But while Erasmus’ meticulous attention to detail had me reaching for the dictionary in a few places, it never encumbered the narrative. This is because Erasmus’ scientific ardour is so convincingly characterised, and because it underpins one of the key conflicts in the book: the clash of purpose that was also evident in so many of the real historical expeditions. Should the explorers voyage into the unknown to record, observe and learn; or to name, plunder and shape the landscape to their needs? In other words do they explore to see what’s there, or just to see themselves reflected in its glory? Although they journey as friends, even potential in-laws, Erasmus and Zeke represent these two perspectives and it is the tragic consequences of their divergent ideals that makes The Voyage of the Narwhal such a powerful read. This is a book which posits many questions to which there are no easy answers.
The Arctic section of the novel occupies perhaps half of the action and the rest, for those who survive, is aftermath. A common complaint against polar fiction is that after the high tension of the survival chapters, any sections taking place back amongst civilisation can feel anticlimactic. I was surprised and impressed that, if anything, Barrett’s novel reverses this. The novel’s Arctic sections capture the landscape’s razor sharp of balance wonder and danger, neatly drawing on many details of the real voyages launched in search of Franklin. Yet, while the tone and detail felt believable, and the sense of impending danger kept me turning the pages, Barrett’s key players didn’t really engage me on an emotional level until near the end of the ship-bound story. One of the characters is later besieged by remorse that he didn’t fully appreciate or get to know some of his former shipmates until it was too late and I found I later experienced a similar pang. It is only once they return from the Ice and in their very different reactions to it, that the figures in this book come most fully to life – even if, for some of them, it seems like that life is already over. As one character states: “I feel like all I’m doing is waiting… Waiting to heal, waiting to learn how to walk without toes, waiting to see what shape my life will take now.”
His poetically expressed guilt is one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the life of real Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of Scott’s last expedition and a figure I find particularly fascinating. The second half of Barrett’s novel often made me think of Cherry, as it rehearses similar themes to his story: the narrow line between public perceptions of polar success and failure and a sense of powerless once expedition stories -and, crucially participants’ reputations – are in the hands of the media. Yet despite these superficial similarities, Antarctic and Arctic experience are poles apart – in the literal sense, of course, and in one key social area. Antarctic exploration can leave indelible marks on the bodies and minds of those who return, shattering some friendships even as others are forged but voyages to a continent with no indigenous population leave behind them only graves, junk and detritus. The Arctic, in this respect, is more complex and the most haunting elements of Barrett’s book are those which express the lasting impact of Zeke’s ambitions and Erasmus’ thirst for knowledge, not only on the men themselves, their shipmates and their waiting families, but also on the Arctic natives they encounter along the way.
To sum up, The Voyage of the Narwhal is a convincingly-done and thought-provoking addition to the canon of Arctic fiction in general and (loosely) Franklin-related creativity in particular.