Quality linked story collections are a rare breed. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Andrea Barrett’s own previous collection–and National Book Award winner–Ship Fever, Barrett’s Archangel elegantly presents separate and distinct stories that work together to build a complete work greater than the sum of its parts. I love books like this, that artfully blur the line between story collection and novel.
There are only five stories here; each is lengthy, but not quite novella length. There is no concrete unifying plot thread, although characters (or their relatives) and locations bridge the stories, which span about 40 years between the end of the 19th century up to the cusp of World War II. Instead, the stories are woven together thematically. Much like Ship Fever, Archangel focuses primarily on women characters in scientific circles, primarily naturalism, though not exclusively.
Much of the book is spent with characters attempting to reconcile modern scientific thought with older, more comfortable notions–namely the afterlife. Barrett uses a delicate touch, though, never preaching through characters or narration. Instead she presents her characters as they deal with some sort of life transition (newly widowed, leaving for boarding school, nursing on the Russian front), with most of them simultaneously searching for perspective on their lives and attempting to wrap their heads around novel scientific concepts such as evolution and genetics, concepts that as science people are core to their senses of self. Against a backdrop of a world barraged with uncertainty and war, these deliberations feel even heavier than they otherwise might.
The second story, “The Ether of Space,” presents us with a young mother who writes popular science articles, distilling lectures and papers for the lay reader. Recently widowed to the First World War, she grapples with astronomy and the physics of Einstein which have the science world abuzz. The new ideas are exciting, but at the same terrifying, as the previously held belief saw space as an ether, one upon which the souls of the dead might possibly find purchase.
In “The Particles,” we meet the science writer’s son, Sam, now grown and reflecting on his somewhat failed career as a geneticist while awaiting rescue in a lifeboat after a u-boat attack. The irony of being a geneticist unable to sire children weighs heavily on Sam, as he struggles to find worth in a field that, with each step forward, continually diminishes his sense of worth as a living creature.
Other stories focus similarly on the uncertainty wrought by this shifting of scientific thought, with its constant reminders of human frailty and insignificance in an expanding universe governed by a set of laws that do not place mankind in its center. This is an excellent book: smart, thoughtful, and eloquently written from start to end.