Winner of the National Book Award for her collection of stories Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett has become one of our most admired and beloved writers. In this magnificent new book, she unfolds five pivotal moments in the lives of her characters and in the history of knowledge.
During the summer of 1908, 12-year-old Constantine Boyd is witness to an explosion of home-spun investigation - from experiments with cave-dwelling fish without eyes to scientifically bred crops to motorized bicycles and the flight of an early aeroplane.
In 1920, a popular science writer and young widow tries, immediately after the bloodbath of the First World War, to explain the new theory of relativity to an audience (herself included) desperate to believe in an "ether of space" housing spirits of the dead.
Half a century earlier, in 1873, a famous biologist struggles to maintain his sense of the hierarchies of nature as Darwin's new theory of evolution threatens to make him ridiculous in the eyes of a precocious student.
The 20th-century realms of science and war collide in the last two stories, as developments in genetics and X-ray technology that had once held so much promise fail to protect humans - among them, a young American soldier, Constantine Boyd, sent to Archangel, Russia, in 1919 - from the failures of governments and from the brutality of war.
In these brilliant fictions rich with fact, Barrett explores the thrill and sense of loss that come with scientific progress and the personal passions and impersonal politics that shape all human knowledge.
I can't think of any author that can write about science and the people involved with science in such a compelling way as Andrea Barrett, and Archangel is a stunning example of her abilities. In this group of five interconnected stories, she writes about early aviation, Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, genetics research, and early x-ray technology. This is historical fiction, and the scientific pioneers are either named or easily recognizable, but Barrett writes so well that these real scientists never overtake the fictional characters she has created.
The interconnectedness of the stories is truly original. The young boy, Constantine Boyd, in the first story, "The Investigators", returns as a grown man and soldier in World War I in the last story, "Archangel". In "The Investigators", Constantine comes to know a neighbor named Miss Atkins who is interested in blind cave fish. Henrietta Atkins returns as a student and teacher in "The Island" where she comes to understand Darwin's theory of evolution from The Professor (Louis Agassiz, although he is not named in the story), but her understanding is quite different from what he is trying to teach. "The Ether of Science" deals with widowed science writer Phoebe Cornelius trying to reconcile what she knows and feels with the ideas of Sir Oliver Lodge. Phoebe's son, Sam, accompanies her to a lecture given by Lodge, one where she is just baffled and confused, but Sam understands what is going on very well, and writes a paper that amazes his mother. This scene has some of the best writing I have ever read about science, humans, emotion, and the reconciliation of science and spirituality. Sam later appears in "The Particles" as a geneticist aboard the Athenia, a British ship sunk by the Nazis in World War II.
I've most likely made this seem more jumbled and confused than Barrett's exceptional writing in Archangel really is, but these stories are all clear, direct, and simply beautiful. I listened to this as an audiobook, and while this was a fine way to experience the book, I will definitely be rereading this in print, so as to not miss any details and for the real pleasure of reading stories so beautifully written.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
I love science and I am quite happy reading science history and biography, so I am not quite sure why we need modestly good fiction with a science bent. These are a few weakly linked short stories each with a science back-story. The best story, by far, was the last, and namesake story, Archangel. This story had more depth and strength of character than the other stories, and made the rest of the listen worth the time. The other stories are just fine, but are a bit simplistic in story and characterization. The science is mildly interesting and at a level approachable by anyone, but this does not overcome the weaknesses in most of the stories.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful