the 1996 publication of her collection of short stories Ship
Andrea Barrett has mapped out a distinctive literary
territory for herself. That book, along with her 1998 novel, The
Voyage of the Narwahl,
developed into a series of stories that
all deal in some way with exploration, both geographic and scientific.
But, to be more precise, Ms. Barretts stories are not so much
about exploration as they are about people who explore.
new book, Servants of the Map,
is a collection of novellas
that continue in this vein, even referring occasionally to events
and characters from earlier works. In this book are stories of scientists,
students, explorers and others with a passion for understanding
the world around them. Set in both the past and present, these stories
present characters whose lives are likely very different from those
of the audience. Nevertheless, their desires and relationships still
manage to strike a chord.
In the title story,
science and exploration are key to the plot and the characters.
A surveyor named Max Vigne has come to Nepal to map a region of
the Himalayas. While there, he endures the hardships of life away
from civilization and sees things that no one else has seen. Some
of these things are beautiful, others horrific. But much of the
story turns on an extended correspondence Vigne carries on with
his wife. Even as he professes his love for her, his new life in
the Himalayas causes him to choose between returning home to his
family or continuing his explorations. He dreams of creating maps
that track the changes in plant life that make up the areas he explores.
In the end, however, he knows that the maps he creates will be used
to draw political boundaries, not natural ones.
Other stories in
this collection use scientific pursuits as metaphors for the things
the characters discover about themselves. "The Mysteries of
Ubiquitin," for example, traces the complex relationships between
a woman, her sister and a friend of their father.
Rose, the eldest
sister, is infatuated with Peter, her fathers friend, when
she is very young. When Rose becomes a young woman, her feelings
for Peter are fulfilled. At the same time, she becomes a scientist,
specializing in the study of ubiquitin, a protein that is not only
found in many different kinds of cells, but also is identical in
all species in which it is found. Ubiquitin, we are told, is continually
synthesized and degraded into its component amino acids. This constant
synthesis and degradation is essential to the maintenance of cells
in a living organism.
Peter, her paramour,
specializes in the study of beetles, who often play the same role
in their environment as ubiquitin does in living tissue. This metaphor
of life as a continuing cycle of death and rebirth comes full circle
at the end of the story, where Rose mourns the loss of her shared
past with her father.
A similar metaphor
can be found in "The Cure," a sprawling story about the
founding of a rest home specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, this story traces the intersecting
lives of the founder, one of the workers and several of the patients.
In the end, the patients and their caretakers find emotional and
perhaps spiritual solace in the "order and precarious harmony"
of the home, just as they find physical health through the orderly
science of medicine.
Regardless of how
the theme of scientific discovery plays itself out, all of these
stories are united by the discoveries the characters make about
themselves. With much interior action, these stories develop with
much deliberation at a rather slow pace.
In the end, it
is the interior lives of Ms. Barretts characters that serve
as the land to be discovered and the truth to be understood. Whatever
her characters set out to explore, it is something of themselves
that they ultimately find.