The International Writers Magazine

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
Paperback 254 pages
Flamingo HarperCollins Publishers, 1999
Norton 1996

Gabriela Davies review

For the love of science, for the science of love. Andrea Barrett’s obsession with the theme of science could at first put on off reading her stories. Not a fan of the topic myself, I imagined I would be skimming through a few of the pages, especially when the heavy nomenclature and jargon appeared. But Barrett does not allow even a minute of skimming; her stories are captivating, they are obsessive, desperate, so strong and so forceful but at the same time told in a delicate, blasé way.

It is a relief, in the days of Harry Potters and Lords of the Ring, to have a story with such scientific wanderings and yet such realism. Barrett’s world is real, as real as mine or yours, and the themes of love, marriage, family, are present to remind us of this. ‘Ship Fever’, the title short story of the book by Andrea Barrett, is a gripping story about the Irish exodus to Canada in 1847, due to the potato famine in Ireland that forced many catholic Irish families to leave their homes and emigrate to other countries.

Barrett recreates with amazing precision this period in History, not only retelling the story with historical exactitude, but also making it even more grasping by adding in the medical complications and problems that arose seem from the eyes of the hero of the novel, a young doctor called Linnaeus. Whether our hero’s name shares coincidental fortune with that of Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist from the eighteenth century we will not know, but judging by Barrett’s talent and adoration for science it is safe to predict that this twist of fate is not at all coincidental. Linnaeus, the typical ‘man in a mid-life crisis’, lies restlessly between his safe career, that of a middle-class doctor living in his father’s middle-class home, and his underlying urge to change the world. The story starts of through the eyes of Arthur Adam, a close friend of his, who has himself done his bit to ‘change the world’, and Linnaeus follows in his steps a few pages on.

Linnaeus receives a formal invitation to join the team of doctors working in Grosse Ile, a small island on the Saint Lawrence River, which lies just outside of Quebec City, Canada. The island was designated in 1847 as a quarantine stop-over for the Irish who, running from famine in their homeland, overcrowded the British sailing ships and sailed into the New World, only to contract typhus and dysentery on their way. The ships, often poorly built and unseaworthy, became known as coffin ships, and carried thousands of Irish emigrants into Canada, most of whom were stopped just outside the Grosse Ile, to be picked up and carried into the quarantine hospital, where doctors like Linnaeus worked obsessively in an attempt to stop the diseases from spreading.

As most stories do, this story has a touch of love. In the midst of the outburst of dysentery and typhus, known as ship fever for obvious reasons, our hero still finds time to cure and employ Nora, an Irish emigrant who then becomes the one to nurse him at his bedside, and to whom he could reminisce about his darling in waiting at home, Susannah. A passionate man, Linnaeus finds love in science, which he feverishly desires to use for the better good, the reason for his moving to the island, and finds strength to carry on in the passion he feels for Susannah, his childhood sweetheart, who encourages him to follow his drive and do as much as he can to help the world. It is amazing how Barrett manages to simultaneously present the reader with so much information and still produce a gripping, forceful, beautiful story that will leave you up at night thinking about the plot. If talent is this- the ability to transform the hard facts of science and history into malleable fictional material of an extraordinary level, she must have it. The historical precision is spot on, and even more, without making it a boring recreation of a moment in history. The scientific detail is intense, but without turning the story into one that only the sympathisers of science can follow.

By her own admission, Barrett is an obsessive researcher, which can clearly be seen in any one of her novels or short stories. Her care for detail takes a turn for the best when it meets the imaginative worlds she so talentedly creates, and she manages to recreate flawlessly a time and place in history whilst intermingling it with fictional characters and pages filled with prose and poetic soundings. Barrett is fascinated with the history of science and its advances in the world, she studied this at university and is still researching it today, and the book would not be written as well by someone who was any less. It defends the timeless cliché that every autobiography is fictional and every work of fiction is autobiographical. ‘Ship Fever’ will take you back to the suffered days of typhus and overcrowded hospitals of the nineteenth century, and for the duration of the story you will be side by side Linnaeus, Nora and the other characters and will feel, love, suffer, and live just as they did.

© Gabriela Davies. March 2006
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