National Book Award winners, number 32: 1996’s Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett.

22 Aug

 (I’ve been writing poems recently, which is insane. I’ve been reading more of it, but my mind seems to want to write poems now, instead of novels. Right now I’m working on what is turning into an epic poem from Aristotle, learning of Alexander the Great’s death. I’m often a mystery to myself.)


In 1996, Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award for her intelligent and intriguing short story collection, Ship Fever.

The stories all revolve around scientists and doctors in the 19th century. Barrett’s style is clean and quick, with the major scientists (Linnaeus and Mendel, among others) often on the periphery of the narrative’s action.

The title story is the longest, the richest. It follows Lauchlin, a Canadian doctor, at odds with the superstitions still saturating his profession. Much of his life has been wasted. He’s in love with a married woman. He’s drifting. Then he takes the job dealing with the sick Irish arriving in boatloads on Canadian shores. He’s been tasked with helping save the malnourished and the near-dead as the potato famine rages back in Ireland. Here’s what he finds, as he moves inside dozens of ships, looking for contagious diseases:


“Into the hold: again, again. Already Lauchlin felt as though he knew that place by heart. The darkness, of course; and the rotting food, and the filth sloshing underfoot. The fetid bedding alive with vermin and everywhere the sick. But a last surprise awaited him here. He inched up to a berth in which two people lay mashed side by side. He leaned over to separate them, for comfort, and found that both were dead.

“He vomited into a corner, a place already so filthy he couldn’t make it worse. Then he scrambled up the ladder and hung breathing heavily over the rail. It was too much, it was impossible.”

Barrett is a very fine writer, economical, elegant. The stories work. They’re haunting, often thrilling and Barrett is masterly in describing the passage of time. But she isn’t soft. She isn’t sentimental. She isn’t re-assuring. Many of the stories detail the horror of aging. Here she is, in the story, “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” having her narrator describe her husband and the passing years:


“Eventually our daughters grew up and moved away. And then, when I was nearly fifty, after Richard had been tenured and won his awards and grown almost unbearably self-satisfied, there came a time when the world went gray on me for the better part of a year.”

Barrett is similar to Alice Munro and William Trevor. There’s something calming about her work. But her focus on scientific discovery, and her adherence to the historical settings and details of her work, make her an intriguing writer.


Dignified and high-minded fiction.

Dignified and high-minded fiction.

In fact, it is the science that makes this very fine book feel unique. Barrett understands the mindset of the scientist bent on changing the world—a heady mix of arrogance, empathy, education, ambition, and philanthropy. Here one of her narrators says it well, referring to a lesson her husband, Richard, teaches young science students: “ . . . Richard would tell them the other Mendel story. The one I told him . . . . The one in which science is not just unappreciated, but bent by loneliness and longing.”

Loneliness, isolation, solitude, research, specimens, the misunderstanding of the larger world—Barrett uses the 19th century as a platform to get at the same issues surrounding so much of science today. And yet, the thing I took away from these stories was a melancholic acceptance of the passage of time. Here she has Linnaeus succumbing to forgetfulness:


“His once-famous memory was nearly gone, eroded by a series of strokes—he forgot where he was and what he was doing; he forgot the names of plants and animals; he forgot faces, places dates. Sometimes he forgot his own name. His mind, which had once seemed to hold he whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tip-toed gingerly.”



1996 was an intriguing year for American fiction. Chuck Palahniuk vaulted to the forefront of underground fiction with his macho-gay masochistic fantasy, Fight Club. David Foster Wallace published his epoch-defining magnum opus, Infinite Jest[1]. Joyce Carol Oates released her epic, truthy fiction, We Were the Mulvaneys. John Berendt published his epic, fictiony truth, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Stephen Millhauser—another intriguing short story writer—released his epic business novel, Martin Dressler. Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Ron Hansen, Elizabeth McCracken, Richard Ford and Janet Peery all published novels.

Infinite Jest remains a milestone. Fight Club seems to capture all of the ennui (yet little of the spirit) of the era. But Barrett’s book in its quiet, hushed desperation is probably the best of the lot.

[1] A hole in my reading life; I haven’t read it.


One Response to “National Book Award winners, number 32: 1996’s Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett.”


  1. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] Fever—Andrea Barrett’s erudite short stories detail scientists struggling at their profession in an age of superstition […]

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