The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
Published in 1998
Genre: Historical fiction, maritime fiction
“He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders.”
Befitting a story that has water and maritime exploration at its heart, the first lines of The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett place the reader along the Delaware River. We then set sail with the crew of the Narwhal toward glory and fame in the endeavor to recover a lost explorer. Unfortunately, despite the book’s premise and promise of a tale of adventure, what follows is lackluster execution marred by missed opportunities for genuine tension.
The story follows Erasmus Wells; son of a wealthy family and naturalist aboard the Narwhal, he is 40 years old and has spent the years since his father’s death at the family home caring for his younger sister, Lavinia, until she marries. She is engaged to Zechariah, “Zeke,” who is commander of the expedition and seeks glory at the cost of others. The expedition’s goal is to find a lost explorer and study unknown regions in the Arctic.
After setting out and heading north, the crumbling dynamics of the crew come to the forefront; while the crew is forced into back-breaking labor in order to pull the ship through ice, morale falls even more when Zeke and the ship’s captain butt heads over who is in command. The men barter and trade with the Esquimaux they meet for information about items they took from a beached ship that held the corpses of dead sailors in its bowels; however, the Esquimaux do not trust them and are very difficult to get information from. The Narwhal becomes stuck, thanks to Zeke’s inability to listen to others, and the crew is forced to winter in the ice. Conditions aren’t ideal, but expectations are flipped at first with Zeke surprising Erasmus and organizing distractions before everything breaks down and morale decays even further.
Back home in Philadelphia, Alexandra, one of Lavinia’s friends, stays at the Wells’s home to keep Lavinia company. Dr. Kane, another explorer, returns from a similar adventure and this causes the public’s opinion of the Narwhal’s expedition to be lessened due to its failure to find any evidence and the heavy casualties its crew sustained. She begins engravings for Dr. Kane’s book and soon learns she really wants to travel. She is a refreshing contrast to Lavinia who is defined exclusively by her relationship to men.
The book is full of flawed characters, some with redeeming qualities and others without. Zeke is very difficult to like because of his selfish ambition and search for fame, as is Lavinia in her blind love for him. Erasmus is introverted and slow to take command, but experienced in the arctic and pairs well with Alexandra, who has a strength of character that is refreshing.
The events in The Voyage of the Narwhal take place from 1855 to 1858; the first two-thirds of the novel cover the voyage and the last third consists of what happens after they return. I haven’t divulged anything about the last third of the novel because to do so would give away major plot points. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote or poem in reference to the North, ice, or exploration, and journal entries of different characters give further insight by revealing their inner thoughts.
There is no real tension or heavy stakes in a story that should be overflowing with the possibility of death in the dangerous tundra of the arctic. There is a distinct disconnect between the narration and the events; this leaves scenes that could have been emotionally evocative as little more than simple summary. Since the little action that happens in The Voyage of the Narwhal occurs during the voyage, what follows is more like tying up loose ends. The anticlimactic finale comes out of left field by smacking of supernatural forces that were never treated as anything close to being real for all of the preceding story.
The Voyage of the Narwhal is fraught with as many problems as the eponymous ship within the book; a lack of emotional or physical tension leaves what could have been an interesting and enticing tale as little more than a dry retelling punctuated by dramatic flair. I was a bit disappointed in the execution and perhaps went in with too many expectations. Though the voyage of the Narwhal is a major part of the story, its consequences are explored in too much detail which causes its underwhelming end.
Verdict: 3 annoying and ambitious commanders out of 5
Recommended for: Maritime exploration enthusiasts, those interested in the arctic explorations of the 19th century, people able to follow a slowly unfolding story with most of its action at the beginning, and those who want to imagine what life was like on an expeditionary ship with a prick of a commander.
Not recommended for: Those looking for a story with tension, Erasmus, people who dislike infuriating characters, people who want all female characters to be defined by their relationships to men, or people who enjoy characters that are selfless commanders.