I've read Andrea Barrett before. I loved The Voyage of the Narwahl, which I read in my pre-blogging days. To be honest I don't think I could tell you a single thing about it now, but I have still a warm fuzzy feeling about it and about Barrett's writing. She is always on the edge of my thinking when I am considering reading a collection of stories by a single author, so it was natural my thoughts turned to her once again. I think the timing is right, as I picked up Ship Fever and instantly clicked with the first story. So, here is my new short story reading for the coming weekends through the end of August. The book is made up of eight stories and a novella, if I have read the description correctly. What I love about her writing is that it combines beautiful, elegant writing with perceptive storytelling and makes use of science and nature as important elements in her stories. It's not surprising that she is not only a highly regarded writer but has won numerous awards, too.
I'm only afraid I am not going to do justice to her collection of stories, which begins with "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds". It moves around in time from the Victorian era, to the war years and beyond. The Victorian elements are really more of background story, a story within the story that is pulled from the memory of the storyteller. There are a lot of parallels between sets of characters, their lives and their experiments in nature. I think she uses these as a vehicle to move the story forward as much as show the human nature of men and women. It's subtle and nuanced and I could keep thinking about it for days and find more and more connections.
It's Antonia, the wife of a scientist, who tells the story, yet it's her own careful observations and her own experiences as a girl that resonate in this story. The interior story (for lack of knowing how better to describe it) is about the experiments by Gregor Mendel in the hybridization of the edible pea. Mendel was Czech when the country was part of the Habsburg empire. When he presented his results it was not an earth shattering paper he delivered. No fanfare just your basic scientific interest, yet he had discovered the science of genetics. And subsequent experiments with the hawkweed, unknown to him that they were by nature difficult to hybridize, threw his ideas into chaos.
Antonia's grandfather had worked side by side with Mendel and told her stories of him when she was a young girl.
"With his own eyes he had watched the hawkweeds ruin Gregor Mendel's life."
They spoke of science because other topics, more intimate and difficult--and life altering--were too hard to speak about. It's these other topics, which ruined Antonia's grandfather's life. A Czech immigrant with an intense dislike of Germans, which will have repercussions not only in his life but that of his granddaughter's.
There are so many layers to this story. Barely two dozen pages long and Barrett tells a wonderful story filled with so much depth and meaning. Next up is a story called "The English Pupil" which begins:
"Outside Uppsala, on a late December afternoon in 1777, a figure tucked in a small sleigh ordered his coachman to keep driving."
I wonder where Barrett and this sleigh and this man will take me now . . .