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The Voyage of the Narwhal

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  1,699 ratings  ·  214 reviews
Part adventure narrative, part love story, this unforgettable novel captures a crucial moment in the history of exploration, the mid-nineteenth-century romance with the mystery of the Arctic. Combining fact and fiction, Andrea Barrett focuses on Erasmus Darwin Wells, a scholar-naturalist accompanying the expedition of the Narwhal. Through his eyes we meet the various crew ...more
Hardcover, 397 pages
Published September 1st 1998 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 1998)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Darrell Delamaide
Andrea Barrett's novel about the era of discovery and exploration in the Arctic is intoxicating. Especially for me after a diet of mysteries and thrillers that are often entertaining but rarely memorable, reading truly literary fiction by a master is like breathing pure oxygen.

What makes it "literary" is the combination of prose that is exquisite and robust at the same time; characters that are subtle and nuanced; and a riveting plot with emotional undercurrents that address basic human desires.
...more
Lobstergirl
Mar 27, 2013 Lobstergirl marked it as aborted
Shelves: got-rid-of
I gave up at p. 70. Historical fiction for me is a genre that has to be done superbly, otherwise count me out. The subject matter - a mid-nineteenth century arctic expedition - was potentially interesting, but Barrett's prose is leaden, dead, and uninspired. Who are these writers, who win Guggenheim fellowships and MacArthur Fellowships and National Book Awards, yet write novels I find unreadable?
Les
This is the best book that I have ever abandoned (before I abandoned Moby Dick and The Idiot--this was probably hyperbole on my part). Major reading slump. I need to come back to this fresh when time permits. Very memorable characters that have stuck with me. How are they? What happened to them? Ran out of library renewals. . .

---updated Feb. 2014

Thanks to those who liked this review. I cannot figure out why as it was the ramblings of a madman in the throes of a book drought. Still, appreciated.
...more
Nancy Oakes
I chose to read this book because I have always been fascinated with polar exploration & doomed expeditions. I thought that this was what this book was about. And in a minor way, it is. But truthfully, it goes way beyond this expectation and way beyond this particular story line.

In 1855, all the news is about the missing Franklin expedition, gone to seek the north pole in the age of discovery. From Philadelphia, Zeke Voorhees is mounting an expedition to either find Franklin or find some ev
...more
Juanita Rice
"The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine
freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a
busyness with dubious implications
. . ."
Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss

This award-winning best-seller is partly a thrilling and harrowing adventure story, every bit as dramatic as first-person accounts of dangerous events, like Jon Krakauer's description of the catastrophic 1996 climbs of Mt. Everest, Into Thin Air, which I refer to for Everest's
historical similarity to the Arctic. The Voyag
...more
Veronica
I discovered Andrea Barrett via this thoroughly researched narrative about 19th-century Arctic exploration, and she's now one of the authors whose work I snap up as soon as it appears in hardback. Her talent is in combining science with literature in a fascinating and accessible way. Here she manages to combine 19th-century concerns (emancipation of slaves, theories of evolution, an obsession with the Arctic) with more modern ones -- the role of women (who have to stay at home and wait), persona ...more
Jennifer Uhlich
I am still digesting.

I stayed up late last night to finish it, which I have not done in a while. The book is a little uneven in its pacing, and the last part feels like a whirlwind of revelations, discoveries, decisions, life and death issues playing out quick quick quick--to the point where I had to reread the last page three times and I still found myself filling in gaps on that quick sketch of what happened to two of the characters.

I continue to be fascinated by how Ms. Barrett deploys POVs.
...more
Cathy
Arctic exploration holds no fascination for me – but I was gripped by the slow realisation of the central character of his own humanity. I suppose the genre is historical fiction though it seemed to me more research-obvious and more a novel of ideas than that suggests.

Erasmus (named 'Erasmus Darwin for the British naturalist, grandfather to the young man who'd set off on the Beagle') seems to live a life of quiet desperation. A self-effacing explorer himself, he becomes increasingly disturbed by
...more
Stephanie Mason
I picked this off the library shelf thinking it would be a great adventure/historical fiction novel, and it was to a point. There were some great images about early arctic exploration, but I felt like the author brought in too many other themes that only distracted. When I had completed it (which I had to push myself to do) I found myself asking what was the point...was this a book about arctic exploration, women's place in the nineteenth century, an argument against Darwinism, or scientific esp ...more
Trish
In keeping with my seafaring survival theme (from just-read Skeletons Of The Zahara), this one had my attention! I initially thought that there was just too much character development, but the real problem was that more time was spent on the characters than the actual logistics of the voyage. The book is more about the events before and after -- so if you're looking for a good story about relationships between some quirky people in the 1850s, rather than an action/survival story, this book is fo ...more
Bree Neely
Reading it again. We'll see if the magic still holds. Haven't read a book twice since high school, but a. am so bored in advance by the unread books on my shelf and b. have such a terrible memory, that I decided it would be time well spent. So far, so good.

UPDATE: Wow, I maybe remembered 0.05% of this book. Unbelievable. It was like I had never even seen the thing. So, this time I give it about 3.75 stars. Wonder what I was so enamored of the first time through?
Katie  Jones
It is hard for me to review this book. I want to say it was nice. It was an enjoyable read. By the end it was predictable. I skipped a bit. If you like fictional arctic sea geologist type books, you might like it. I think it could have used more intensity. It is an intense business being stranded in the arctic in 1800 something. I appreciated this book. But I was glad to move on.
Melissa
3.5 stars. This book tells of a fictional arctic expedition in the middle of the 19th century, but ultimately the story is more about the people than their adventures. It appears to be very well-researched, and maybe as a result it's a little dry in the first third of the book, which is all about the details and the start of the journey. A lot of people introduced, a lot of setting the stage, and it didn't all really stick with me too well. Once the expedition starts to run into trouble, we get ...more
William
Fascinating details about the Arctic. I had no idea that the whalers were so much in evidence in the eastern high Arctic in the middle of the 19th century. I knew that there was a whaling settlement on Herschel island of the Northern Yukon in the late 19th century (now abandoned). The book can be slow in parts but makes up for it in presenting some fascinating items of interest to me. The "name" explorers of the time are mostly represented as pretty scummy self centered individuals with big egos ...more
Susan
Beautifully written book about a (fictional) voyage to the Arctic in mid-1800's, another of the many voyages supposedly looking for Franklin's men, though really with the aim of further exploration. Erasmus accompanies his friend - and maybe future brother-in-law on a trip that meets with many frustrations, death, danger. The descriptions of middle class life in Philadelphia both before and after the voyage were very interesting to me. Of course, there was the necessary love interests but couche ...more
Meredith
Interesting read, I really enjoyed the author's style. This seemed like a non-fiction, true story account of a voyage to the Arctic. The time period (1850's) was captivating and being a Philadelphia resident, it was intriguing to read so many local references such as the Schyukill river, Market St, Conshohocken, etc. The character development was good, though I did get lost on minor characters at times, especially when referenced in past voyages and the search for a missing expedition. This book ...more
Adobe
The Voyage of the Narwhal is so schematic, with the standard revelations (the oppressed heroine has to break out of society's conventions in order to follow her artistic dreams) and standard poetic stretches. There's lots of nice details about the food and the tedium and the illness -- each of the characters is a little raft of tactile human misery -- but these human details are often swamped by the impersonal flood of Important Themes and Momentous Symbolism. There are sections where the writin ...more
Chrissie
it started out as a four, but it got somewhat predictable and mired down in non-artic, non-adventure related stuff.
Sarah
I couldn't put this book down!! Andrea Barrett made me feel cold reading it!
Lethornton
This book was a captivating look at a time I never explored. The expeditions of the nineteenth century took people to the far reaches of the world to find plants, landforms, animals, and humans that had never been described in western cultures. The characters in this book were written well enough to love them and hate them. The personal growth of the main character was sometimes agonizingly slow but it moved to a good place. I enjoyed how well the author helped me appreciate the trials and joys ...more
Laura
Reading this book right on the heels of The Terror was strange, because the expedition in Voyage of the Narwhal is undertaken in order to find the lost expedition in The Terror. All through the first half of the book, I was thinking, "No, no, they're not there -- you're looking in the wrong place!" That being said, Voyage of the Narwhal is miles, icebergs, and oceans better than The Terror.

Barrett weaves a deft narrative around fascinating characters: the bulk of narration is handled by Erasmus
...more
Celia Barry
What an amazing book. This is a beautifully written story of arctic exploration in the 1850's. There are themes of friendship, jealousy, and love, against the backdrop of the cruel polar winters. The charismatic Zeke, a handsome family friend is determined to lead an expedition to find and rescue a ship of missing explorers and perhaps do his own exploring. His crew consists of a handful of men with a lot of experience at sea, a medical doctor who is an amateur naturalist and his future brother- ...more
Karen
The Norwahl sets sail to the Arctic north to find survivors of an English expedition that left years before and never returned. Most of the ship’s crew are Americans and they leave on this adventure from Philadelphia. There are as many reasons to be on this ship as there are people. The captain of the expedition, Zeke is looking for fame and notoriety; Erasmus (the main character) seeks scientific discovery of plant and animal life; Ned, the cook, is a poor Irish immigrant who fled the famine in ...more
MyGoodBookshelf
(This review also appears on Amazon.co.uk)

I have had this book sat on my shelf for what seems like forever, so I'm pleased I eventually got around to reading it. Actually, I don't know why I didn't get around to it sooner- I think I'd been avoiding it because it was a bit of a long book on what I suspected might be quite a dry subject matter. Despite an admittedly slow start and some peaks and troughs in the middle however, this was actually a really absorbing read.

Set during the 19th Century, t
...more
Kimberly Scearce-levie

When I read Ship Fever, I thought it a bit over-rated. But I liked it enough to give Voyage of the Narwhal a try, and I'm very glad I did. Sometimes this book feels like an adventure story, sometimes a historical romance, and sometimes a philosophical meditation. I enjoyed it on many levels. I often couldn't bear to put it down. When I did, I found myself thinking about what I had read throughout the day.

Erasmus is a fascinating main character. We sympathize with him and want him to find whate
...more
Tim
For those seeking polar exploration fiction, "The Voyage of the Narwhal" (3.5 stars) is a nice companion to Dan Simmons' "The Terror." That is, while featuring a completely different approach and tone and minus a rampaging, horrific creature.

Simmons' magnificent epic fictionalizes the real Franklin arctic expedition that was mysteriously lost circa 1850s. Andrea Barrett, a national book award winner for her collection "Ship Fever," here chronicles a fictional wide-eyed expedition searching for F
...more
Boots
i had tried reading this some years ago and gave up about 30 pages in. i came back to give it another chance and forced myself to get to the end, but unfortunately it wasn't worth the second effort. this is a mess of a book: part adventure story, part romance, part history, part man vs. nature, part man vs. ambition.

other readers have noted and i have to concur that the characters are mostly uninteresting without implied depth, but when you try to understand them, there's really nothing there. n
...more
Cynthia
I really liked the topic of this book and the setting and tone. I never read anything by Andrea Barrett but I did like her writing style.

The novel is set in the 1850's and starts off with a group of men about to set off on an arctic exploration trip on the ship called the Narwhal. The mission of this trip is to find out what happened to Franklin and his men. Franklin's ships were equipped to handle 3 years out to sea but they have been missing for 10 years. Previous rescue/exploration missions
...more
Carmen
"History is written by the victors." That quote, attributed to the great and always eloquent Winston Churchill, is echoed in this book by the main character Erasmus who says, "Who ever writes about the failures?" Well, Andrea Barrett does. Voyage of the Narwhal is a great adventure story that takes place on the high seas, but it's not really about the action or adventure. It's about telling the story from the other side. The fallout left from the actions of men full of great ambition and pride. ...more
Charles Markee
Ms. Barrett crafted this wonderful story and brought it to life primarily by virtue of the historical research that gives each scene a vivid reality. But she also uses the contrast between Erasmus’ personality and the concept of adventure to make it seem even more exotic. I quickly became immersed in the expedition. It was so real and so absorbing that I had great difficulty tearing my self from the story to continue my own daily life. I felt while reading the book, that I was on a vicarious, fa ...more
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Andrea Barrett is the author of The Air We Breathe, Servants of the Map (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
More about Andrea Barrett...
Ship Fever: Stories The Air We Breathe Servants of the Map Archangel Middle Kingdom

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