Tag Archives: The Voyage of the Narwhal

Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.

Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.

Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in December 2015

Cover imageFour novels read but not reviewed this month, all very different but all fine books in their own way, beginning with Rebecca Hunt’s Everland. It’s taken me a while to get around to this novel which follows two expeditions a century apart, charting their progress on a tiny Antarctic island. The second is in commemoration of the first, which we know from the start ended disastrously, and to some extent the parties mirror each other: one member inexperienced, apparently weak, there because of nepotism; one young and a little arrogant; both led by a seasoned leader whose heart is firmly tethered to home.  The shifts and realignments in relationships between the characters are sharply observed and Hunt captures the natural world beautifully with poetically descriptive language. I enjoyed it very much but Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal with its vividly evocative writing and perceptive characterisation remains my benchmark for this kind of novel. A click on the title will take you to Naomi’s excellent review at Consumed by Ink.

I came to Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Future after reading the lovely Molly Fox’s Birthday which follows a woman’s thoughts over the birthday of the friend who has lent her the house she is staying in. This one was not quite the match for Molly but Madden excels at that subtle understatement and exploration of family in the way that so many Irish writers do, examining how our past elides with our present as Fintan Buckley’s newly awakened interest in photography changes his perceptions of those around him. Nothing much happens but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written.

I very nearly gave up Thomas Christopher Greene’s The Headmaster’s Wife but there’s a magnificent twist about half-way through which made me sit up straight and carry on. Arthur Winthrop is found wandering naked in snowy Central Park. Dull and somewhat stodgy, he’s the headmaster of a Vermont school, following in the footsteps of his father. Arthur tells the first part of his story to the police, a tale of scandal and betrayal. Halfway through the book a lawyer appears and suddenly, like a twist of a kaleidoscope, an entirely different picture appears. The second part of the book is written from his wife’s Cover imagepoint of view, neatly putting into perspective everything Arthur has told his captors.

My last book of 2015 was NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the second Zimbabwean novel I read this year. Bulawayo’s debut begins in 2005, the year Robert Mugabe bulldozed tens of thousands of houses, leaving families without shelter at a time when the economy was in tatters. Told through the strikingly vivid voice of ten-year-old Darling who roams the shanty town where she now lives with her friends, no longer at school now that teachers are not paid, it’s very different from Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory but equally as good. How nice to end the reading year with such an excellent book!