The Voyage of the Narwhal - Book review

Talking grew difficult; their beards froze to their neckerchiefs and saliva sealed their lips. The wind tore tears from their eyes and froze their lids together.

Thus is the atmosphere in The Voyage of the Narwhal, an historical adventure novel by Andrea Barrett. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century; the Narwhal is a whaling ship that has been outfitted for an Arctic voyage. The mission is to find out what happened to the Franklin expedition, apparently lost some years before exploring the Arctic. It is a bit of a race, as other expeditions have also set out to find Franklin’s ship.

The Narwhal’s naturalist and the book’s main protagonist is Erasmus Darwin Wells. He is the voice of reason on the voyage, compared to the commander, Zechariah Voorhees (Zeke), who is young and daring and doesn’t give much thought to the consequences of his actions. He puts his crew at risk on a number of occasions. He is the commander only because his father funded the expedition and built the ship.

Though I haven’t read many adventure stories, there are some elements here one would naturally expect – daring, danger, hardships, near death experiences, an unhappy crew, an unreasonable commander, and so on. Barrett's brilliance lies in her descriptions of the atmosphere and settings:
...any acknowledgment of sickness made the men nervous. So did the darkness, and the daily task of scraping from bunks and bulkheads the frost that formed from their breath while they slept. It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.
Waiting at home for the return of the Narwhal are Lavinia – sister to Erasmus and fiancĂ© of Zeke – and her companion during the men’s absence, Alexandra. We are privy to their lives as well. They set to work hand coloring plates for an entomology book Lavinia’s two other brothers are publishing. Lavinia uses the work to fill her time, but Alexandra takes to the work and begins drawing illustrations for another book. She is the strong independent one and introduces the theme of women’s rights and abilities into the story. She and her family are abolitionists.

This novel holds adventure, intrigue, mystery, and a bit of magical realism right alongside issues of human rights – treatment of and attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Esquimaux, are explored.

Highly recommended (unless you’re trying to keep warm in frigid temperatures!).