W.W. Norton, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-04348-7
Since the 1996 publication of her collection of short stories Ship Fever, 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. Barrett’s stories are not so much about exploration as they are about people who explore.
         Ms. Barrett’s 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 father’s 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. Barrett’s 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.