Andrea Barrett’s collection of short stories collected into one volume titled SHIP FEVER is interesting. Each story stands alone in its own right, and yet they are connected by the themes of science, love and even century. The opening story HAWKWEEDS is about a tale within a tale. The narrator, a faculty wife, has a connection to Mendel via her grandfather, who met the famous monk when he was a boy. What the husband, does not know, is why the narrator’s grandfather told her about Mendel. But that would spoil the story.
And so we continue. THE ENGLISH PUPIL concerns the old age of the great Linnaeus, declining not-so-gracefully in 1770s Uppsala. THE LITTORAL ZONE is about a torrid affair between two scientists, set in the present. RARE BIRD is how two women outsmarted the great Linnaeus, layered in amongst observations about how difficult it was for an intelligent woman to live a happy and fulfilling life in 1760s England. SOROCHE is a tragic story about loss, set in the present. BIRDS WITH NO FEET is a vivid recreation of the lives of the nineteenth century scientist-explorers, who, inspired by science, set up to collect animals and plants from remote corners of the world. THE MARBURG SISTERS is about a relationship between two sisters, one of who is a biochemist, set in the present. SHIP FEVER is set in 1840s Canada, and concerns a public health tragedy.
What is so amazing about these tales is how well the characters are evoked. Ms Barrett manages to immerse us quickly into their lives and concerns, so much so that we feel as if we know them well after only a few pages. That shows real talent. If you have never read short stories before, or believe you don’t like them, these are for you. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.