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Books: Plenty of lolly in the ice

Freighted with plaudits, the latest US blockbuster sails into British waters at last. John Sutherland climbs aboard for a tour of inspection; The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett Flamingo, pounds 15.99, 399pp
THE VOYAGE of the Narwhal, as is now routine with big American novels and movies, comes to Britain late in the day. It was released in the US last September; Andrea Barrett had made her mark with a collection of emigration stories, Ship Fever, which unexpectedly won a National Book Award in 1996. The US publisher, Norton, put significant investment into Barrett's subsequent nautical novel, intending to crown critical esteem with commercial success. It would be E Annie Proulx all over again.

Norton's investment paid off. The Voyage of the Narwhal got reviews to die for. The British publisher has sent reviewers a pack of Xeroxes oozing such syrup. Don't let them tell you that spin-doctoring is just a political phenomenon.

Andrea Barrett is a prize product of the college creative-writing course and herself teaches in a Master of Fine Arts programme. She got a Guggenheim Award to research this book (a lengthy bibliography testifies to her scholarly conscientiousness). One's first dilemma is whether to read, review, or grade the novel.

Frankly, the last is easier than the first. As an exercise in composition this is summa cum laude. It is, however, a difficult read, at least initially. The narrative is pitched between historical docu-fiction and Melvillean romance. It is 1855, on the Eastern seaboard. An expedition is embarked to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin's expedition to the frozen waters off Greenland. Franklin had been lost ten years earlier, looking for the North West Passage.

The Narwhal is commanded by a young Emersonian idealist, Zeke Voorhees. Also on board is a disillusioned naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells. Zeke is engaged to Erasmus's sister, Lavinia, who strikes one as very wet. The voyage of the Narwhal (which is fictional) is overshadowed by that of Elisha Kent Kane (which was historical). As they penetrate the eery waters of Baffin Bay, tensions develop in the 15-man crew. The tensions are screwed up to mortal pitch when the ship becomes ice-locked for many months in what is a graveyard for 19th-century vessels.

One of the initial problems with the novel is determining its creative centre. Neither of the principals, Zeke nor Erasmus, generates warmth in the reader. As with most seagoing yarns, there is no love interest. The point of the novel, for most of its length, seems to be the polar mise en scene. Forging a Victorian-scientific pastiche style, Barrett handles this aspect well. There are memorable descriptions of the wooden vessel, caught between plates of ice, rumbling "with sudden, explosive cracks that made the men feel as if they'd been caught in a giant mouth, which was chewing on the landscape". One thinks of the Ancient Mariner's ice-floes, which "cracked and growled, and roared and howled".

Things hot up (so to speak) in the last third. The survivors on the Narwhal make a break for freedom in an open boat. Zeke (presumed dead) is left behind. By a miracle they are rescued. Their expedition seems to have been futile. They have turned up enigmatic relics of Franklin's voyage which solve nothing. No passage has been discovered. Erasmus's specimens have been lost. All the limelight is drawn to Kane's triumphant return and his book, Arctic Explorations.

The narrative climaxes with a great surprise which it would be unkind to give away (this is not a book rich in surprises). It finally emerges what the Narwhal has, in fact, discovered. Running throughout the cogitations of the main characters has been what was called the monogenic debate. Was the human race one species, or many? Were those encyclopedias which showed "the esquimeaux like misshapen gnomes and the Negroes like chimpanzees" correct? Was Linnaeus right in "proposing a separate species of man, possessed of a tail and inhabiting the antarctic regions"?

Most Victorians adhered to the polygenic belief: they had no kinship with savage hottentots and degraded tribes in polar snows. The good ship Narwhal, the modern reader will be relieved to know, sails serenely into the harbour of political correctness on this question.