Book Review: 'Archangel'

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on August 27, 2013 4:30 pm
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The National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett is out with a new collection of short fiction. It's called "Archangel." The stories are loosely linked and exhibit the author's unbridled passion for science.

Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: The first story, "The Investigators," set in 1908, opens up a world of technology and invention to Constantine Boyd, an adolescent from Detroit who spends summers at his uncle's farm. Between milking sessions, he becomes acquainted with the new world of airplane flight and pin-hole photography, among other modern discoveries, in an earnest coming of age story that, alas, for my taste seems almost as bland as the country setting.

But hooray for Barrett because the near novella-length piece called "The Island," carries us back to New England in 1873. And, unlike the earlier pieces in the collection, makes as much sense as good fiction as it does as fictionalized history of modern scientific thought.

Young Henrietta Atkins' pilgrimage from New York State to an island off the coast of Maine, in order to study biology with the famous Swiss scientist, celebrates the vitality of critical scientific inquiry in a time still anchored in the old thinking. As Henrietta puts her mentor's creationism behind her and opts for Darwinian thought, the story achieves true aesthetic power.

In the title piece, the final one in the collection, Constantine, that young Detroiter from the first tale, shows up as a wounded soldier in the midst of the winter of 1919 in civil-war torn Russia. Young soldier meets a young Red Cross nurse. She's Eudora, devoted to her work and tries to keep her distance. He's desperate to live to fight again another day. And when they come together in the end, on a raucous toboggan ride, this final story achieves a fusion of life and wonder which the other pieces strove to reach but never seemed to grasp.

BLOCK: The book is "Archangel," written by Andrea Barrett and reviewed by Alan Cheuse, who teaches writing at George Mason University.



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