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The Voyage of the Narwhal

3.9  ·  Rating details ·  2,335 Ratings  ·  282 Reviews
Capturing a crucial moment in the history of exploration—the mid-nineteenth century romance with the Arctic—Andrea Barrett's compelling novel tells the story of a fateful expedition. Through the eyes of the ship's scholar-naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, we encounter the Narwhal's crew, its commander, and the far-north culture of the Esquimaux. In counterpoint, we meet th ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published September 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton Company (first published January 1st 1998)
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This is a book of fiction and fact. While the background characters are real, the ones drawn in the plot are fictional. There are many who prefer having historical facts woven into an engaging fictional story. That is what this book achieves. There is a huge amount of research on polar flora, fauna, history, expeditions, literature and way of life packed into this book. You can read many books of non-fiction or you can read this book and rest assured that what happens here has somewhere, sometim ...more
Darrell Delamaide
Apr 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Ian Laird
After posting this initially, I discovered some notes I made during the read, so I have done a bit of revision. 26/10/15

This story brings to life the world of arctic exploration, much in vogue in the nineteenth century.

I was expecting a tale of seafaring adventure, and while there is a very affecting evocation of the practicalities of sailing into the freezing waters of the north, with a rich picture of the provisioning, the conditions, the tasks of the voyagers, searching for traces of the los
Alejandro Teruel
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ficción
Meticulously researched novel of a fictitious Arctic expedition and its aftermath set roughly between 1850 and 1857, supposedly started as yet another gallant attempt to find the British explorer's John Franklin's lost expedition to chart a Northwest Passage(1845-1847).

The author brilliantly chooses a historical period where the craze and romance of Arctic exploration led to a point where there were ten British and two US ships searching for Franklin; as Wikipedia baldly puts it:
Eventually, more
Nancy Oakes
Feb 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
Aug 13, 2010 marked it as aborted  ·  review of another edition
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?
I put off reading this book for too long, so I perhaps wasn't in the mindset to read it, knowing it *had* to go back to the library as soon as possible. I started it on a Friday, which is never a good day to start a book for me, as the weekend is always distracting. But I gamely tried to get as much under my belt as I could that Friday.

I failed quite a bit that day. I just couldn't get into the book. It was dry, it was confusing. Barrett added in little unexplained details that you knew would be
Jennifer Uhlich
May 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I love Andrea Barrett's books. I was really happy the other day to discover that there was an older novel of hers that I had forgotten about and hadn't had a chance to read yet. The topic of the arctic exploration was also the perfect thing to read this February, what with the snow mounds outside my house taller than I am.
Barrett's narrator's always have a slightly anachronistic modern sensibility, but I enjoy them and can connect with them. Her writing plays with ideas of how scientific thinkin
May 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Like other books by Andrea Barrett, this one is beautifully written against the backdrop of the known scientific and natural world in the 19th century. Many of the background characters are historical figures, whereas foreground characters are fictitious, yet the book reads like more than a historical novel. I was drawn in to the lives of the characters while also becoming engrossed in the Arctic explorations of the time. The book engaged both sides of my brain! Immensely pleasurable reading.
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.
Nov 04, 2012 rated it liked it not complete.

Growing up in the 1960s, space exploration fronted TV news casts. The Soviet and U.S. space race diverted America’s attention from the Cold War, Vietnam, JFK and MLK’s assassinations. The whole country celebrated a safe landing and watched in awe as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took human’s first steps on the moon. They were heroes.

So it should not have surprised me that 100 years earlier the country was enraptured by Arctic exploration. After Sir John Franklin’s ex
Suzanne Lilly
Feb 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Just one look at the cover of this book will give you an idea of the complexity and complications faced by the 19th century Arctic explorers. In this engrossing tale of the search for Franklin and his lost expedition, Andrea Barrett brings to the page the hidden motivations and desires that accompanied these men on their ships.

On the other hand, we get to know the women standing watch patiently at home waiting for the explorers to return safely. Andrea Barrett breathes life into these characters
Apr 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 29, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Debbie Boucher
Mar 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
If you missed this book as I did when it came out seventeen years ago, or if you like historic/adventure fiction, you may want to pick up a copy of The Voyage of the Narwhat at your local library (or download it on your e-reader). Friends had mentioned this title to me, but it's only now that I have gotten around to reading it as I exhaust what is available to me at the ISPS library. The story starts off slowly, but it builds subtly, and by the end I couldn't put it down. It's historical fiction ...more
Stephanie Mason
Nov 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Jun 16, 2009 rated it liked it
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
May 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Gripping story, beautiful prose, but pretty much the antithesis of a comfort read.
Very enjoyable read. Thanks, Teddie
Nov 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
I couldn't put this book down!! Andrea Barrett made me feel cold reading it!
Oct 10, 2007 rated it liked it
it started out as a four, but it got somewhat predictable and mired down in non-artic, non-adventure related stuff.
Vel Veeter
Jul 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cbr-9
This book also explores the 19th century fascination with the Arctic as a genuine scientific and adventurous pursuit. In this particular voyage, the lead protagonist, Erasmus, who comes from a scientifically-minded family, but is of middling success and talent, is conscripted to join a voyage lead by his would-be brother-in-law to be a naturalist on the ship. This ship’s main goal is to seek out the remains of the ill-fated mission of Franklin whose two boats Erebus and Terror were lost in the p ...more
Oct 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: literary-fiction
Erasmus Wells, naturalist and explorer, joins an expedition by ship to the mysterious Arctic. region. His beloved sister and friend stay behind to console one another during the long voyage. ahead. Disaster strikes again and again, as the Narwahl is stuck in freezing ice and the crew must find a way to survive a winter in this unforgiving part of the world. Told from several points of view, the author weaves a wondrous tale of the eternal quest for the unknown world in the heart and on the sea.
Chris Bartholomew
Sep 20, 2017 rated it liked it
I did enjoy this story. A fictional account of a ship over wintering in the Artic. I enjoyed the authors description of the various personalities and how they each handled the trials of any explorer. She also included a bit of the lives of the people left behind at both ends of the expedition. The wives at home and the natives of Greenland. A fine see story and a fine peek at our human natures.
At first I didn't expect much from this book. It started a little slow to be honest. It didn't really pick up until the boat got stuck in the ice. Although, lately I haven't had much time to sit down and just read it. That may have played into the feeling of slowness. Luckily, today I had to take a sick day and I was able to breeze right through!

I really enjoyed the development of the characters even though not many of them were talked about thoroughly. The book was mostly about Erasmus and Zeke
Jill Ann  Lim
Feb 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
A captivating read, great story telling and great characters.
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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.
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