Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Ship Fever – Andrea Barrett

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 6, 2011

Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literallyshort and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two — Annie Proulx

Inspite of my genuine love for fiction, I struggle with books. Essentially it appears to be a problem of acclimatization. Unfailingly, the first few pages are always an effort. At the start of every book and for an irritating period of time, I simply fail to get a grip on the style, characters flit in and out of focus at their will and elude my grasp, the progress with pages is slow, the need to revert to previous sentences, paragraphs, pages and sometimes even to chapters is high. To add to my despair, I start to question the choice of the book on hand itself. But I labour on. Gradually the scenario changes to the opposite. My focus on the characters becomes sharper and they start to assume flesh, blood and a life of their own and everything starts to gain coherence. The narrative style starts to become palatable and familiar. Added to all this is a healthy hunger and curiosity to carry on with the reading, get to know the story and see the end. While I cannot pin-point the exact timing of the turn of events, once I am on this transition path, I genuinely start to enjoy the book and begin to treat it with a sense of reverence for the pleasures it has to offer me. While this rite of passage is uniformly true with all the novels that I have read so far, with short stories the struggle is more intense. The reason for this, I believe, is that in short stories the topography of the narrative terrain is subject to more frequent alterations than in a novel or novella. Despite the general jagged ride, I love short stories more than any other form of writing. So any good collection of short stories is always welcome with me and I happily accepted a gift of Andrea Barrett’s “Ship Fever” given to me by a well meaning friend. That he meant well for my reading pursuits was amply evident after I read the book

Barrett is a gifted story teller. She is not a science fiction writer but her stories are full of characters who are scientists, discoverers, men of medicine, accidental associates and many others who are on the fringes of the world of science. The backdrop of all her stories is steeped in science or some aspect of history of science and medicine. Against this backdrop, she cleverly weaves her stories of human struggles, misfortunes, triumphs and defeats with imaginatively mingled threads of fact and fiction. The weaving is done so cleverly that the reader tends to pleasantly confuse between the real and the unreal.  In general, women in her stories are accorded a special place. They come across as brave, vulnerable but tenacious and trying to elbow their way into what had traditionally been treated as an exclusive zone for men. There is a deeply observed sense of history in all her stories and it is this that provides the richness and authenticity that is captivating. The story “The Behaviour of Hawkweeds” is the inward migration, settling, growing up and acclimatizing to the life in USA of a east european emigrant family. What makes the story absorbing is the intertwining of the life of the narrator’s grandfather with that of the life of Gregor Mendel who discovered the world of plant genetics. The story “The English Pupil” is told as glimpses into recollections of a stroke ridden memory of Carolus Linnaeus (the father of botanical nomenclature). Immobilised by a severe paralytic stroke, but desirous of being in open air, Linneaus requests his driver to take him to his manor house where lying by a comfortable fireside, he reminisces the various quests and travails of his students sent forth by him for botanical explorations. Linnaeus’s thoughts are feeble, fleeting and failing yet paint a rich picture of the age and times when Linneaus was at the top of his profession. Linneaus is so deteriorated that he is not even in shape to recognise his own daughter who has come to take him back home. In the story “Rare Bird” an english woman suffocated by the conservative customs and mores of her rich English family makes her escape out of England to be free to live a life on her own and possibly pursue her interests in science. While doing so she also challenges Linneaus who it is told held a belief that swallows as against migrate hibernate in lakes during the freezing winters of north as against the emerging proof of migration. What dawns on the reader towards the end of the story is that the woman herself is a rare bird given her circumstances and not the swallows. Subtle and well told tale. “Birds With No Feet” is a tale of a disappointed, unlucky but doughty explorer who collects rare biological specimens driven by a desperate need for financial security. What lends gravity to the story is the glimpse into the hardship of such specimen gatherers during the early part of the twentieth century when large part of the world existed as colonies. “The Marburg Sisters” is the story of growing up of two sisters and progressing on two different life trajectories in the 60’s America which was full of liberal ideas and drugs. “Littoral Zone” is a passionate lover story of two married marine biology academicians narrated as a recall during their sunset years. However, the finest of all stories is “Ship Fever” dealing with the appalling developments during Irish famine resulting in a mass emigration to Canada and the tribulations of kind hearted Canadians and the unlucky Irish to find a meaningful response to the entire predicament. Told with a great sense of passion, control and authentic background, the story will remain as one of the finest I have read so far

Barrett brings out the romances, risks and adventures that existed at the turn of the previous two centuries in the world of science. She tells all her stories with a sense of gentle poignancy and pathos that is truly endearing and the enhanced authenticity to her writing comes from the historical detail she uses as a backdrop. It is this clever approach that appears to elevate the otherwise good stories to truly great and memorable ones

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