From the stark reaches of the Arctic to the sinkholes of domestic life, these novels and short-story collections explore landscapes rich and strange -- and dangerous.
When Erasmus Darwin Wells, protagonist of Andrea Barrett's novel The Voyage of the Narwhal (Norton, $14), signs up as naturalist on an 1855 expedition to the Arctic, he thinks he knows what he's in for, unlike his shipmates: "None of them grasped the drudgery of such a voyage. Not just the planning and buying and stowing but the months sitting idly on the decks of a ship, the long stretches when nothing happened except that one's ties to home were imperceptibly dissolved and one became stranger to one's own life. No one knew how frightened he was, or the mental lists he made of all he dreaded. Ridiculous things, ignoble things. His bunk would be too short or too narrow or damp or drafty; his comrades would snore or twitch or moan; he'd be overcome by longing for women; he'd never sleep. Sleepless, he would grow short-tempered; short-tempered, he'd say something wrong . . . and make an enemy. . . . His joints would ache, his back would hurt, they'd run out of coffee, on which he relied; a storm would snap the masts in half, a whale would ram the ship. They'd get lost, they'd find nothing, they'd fail."
Failure sticks close by Erasmus. At 40, he has "no wife, no children, no truly close friends . . . his life's work had come to almost nothing." Since the death of his father -- a Philadephia printer so passionate about flora and fauna that he named his four sons after great naturalists -- Erasmus has wasted his days pottering around the Repository, the family natural history museum, sorting specimens and hoarding travellers' tales without venturing out of the house much himself. "The world pulsed and streamed but he was cut off; people loved and sorrowed without him." He does fret about his sister, Lavinia, and her passion for Zeke Voorhees, a golden-haired heartthrob who has agreed to marry her but won't set a date.
At least Zeke has the initiative to put an Arctic voyage together: He wants to sail off in search of survivors of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. Though he doesn't trust Zeke, Erasmus sees a chance to do something at last and, dragging his feet a little, takes it. Running out of coffee will be the least of his travails as they sail north in search of Franklin and fame; once they arrive in the domain of "Esquimaux" and Arctic ice, loyalty and honor start peeling away like icebergs calving off a glacier.
Barrett has a taste for scientifically inflected fiction -- she won the National Book Award in 1996 for the collection Ship Fever, which features, among others, a naturalist ill at ease with the killing he must do to collect specimens. In The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett lays out every detail of a 19th-century polar expedition, from the symptoms of scurvy (bleeding gums are just the beginning) to how a specimen is prepared. But she also finds time for those usually absent from the annals of exploration -- the women waiting at home -- periodically skipping out of the voyage to see how Lavinia and her companion, the much more astute and admirable Alexandra (perhaps a soulmate for Erasmus, though he doesn't know it yet) are faring while the menfolk lose themselves in the ice.
Bred in the Bone
Some of the characters in Jennifer Lash's novel Blood Ties (Bloomsbury USA, $13.95) would probably rather take their chances in the Arctic than face another day with each other. Lash, the mother of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes and their four siblings, died of cancer in 1993, but not before completing this, her fifth novel (she has two nonfiction books to her credit as well, including On Pilgrimage, an account of the solo trip she made to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, after she learned of her illness).
Lash wrote Blood Ties under a virtual death sentence; it didn't appear until four years after she died. Some reviewers thought that Lash's illness contributed to the book's intensity of feeling. Whether or not they're right, this story about a deeply troubled family does have a fierceness about it, a refusal to let things go gently.
Here's Violet, the unhappily married matriarch of the small Farr clan, thinking about Lumsden, her son and only child: "What a bitter irony his ensuing life had been to her. Dishonest. Sexually deviant. A parasite. A liar. When he left the country [Ireland] in a haze of dishonour soon after his seventeenth birthday she admitted it all to herself, and the bitter facts burnt some sour place in her mind where a great angry tethered pain seemed forever after to abide. She could not budge it. She could not disregard it. She could not take it or break it. It was the unseen centre of her life, a great black cauldron bubbling with anger and shrill pity. Pity for herself. Pity for this irredeemable injustice she had suffered. It was as if some unseen force had taken her body and heart and hope and had spread it like a stained hide, to be trampled and marred and generally disfigured forever."
Then the narrative voice swoops low into a deceptive calm: "Of course they had sensed trouble early on. There had been signs . . . " Make no mistake, though; Violet's a storm and a fury, and if Lumsden went badly wrong it's not entirely his fault. The sins of the first two generations come home to roost when Lumsden sires an illegitimate son, Spencer, who's dumped on his grandparents' doorstep, disturbed and lumbering toward insanity. Lash's vision takes in the bitter and the bleak but also sees a place reserved for happiness, though it make take the Farrs another generation or two to find it.
Beyond the Street
Violet Farr could learn a thing or two about parental love from Lutie Johnson, the protagonist of Ann Petry's classic 1946 novel The Street, set in Harlem; separated from her husband, Lutie tries hard to be a good mother to their son, though forces inside and outside the community work against her. Two more of Ann Petry's books are out again in paperback: The Narrows (Houghton Mifflin, $13) and Miss Muriel and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin, $13).
Petry grew up in Old Saybrook, Conn., a member of the only African-American family in town; her father was a pharmacist, her grandfather a chemist. For The Narrows she drew on her Yankee background, setting her story of the love affair between a black man and a white woman in another Connecticut town, Monmouth. Link Williams, 26 years old, has a college degree and a polished way about him; Camilo Sheffield, also young and attractive, is white, married and an heiress, none of which she tells Link when they start romancing. He finds out the truth and breaks off with her; a woman scorned, she accuses him of rape, with predictably violent consequences -- though Petry's too adept a writer to end the story there.
Burn, Baby, Burn
The stories in Aimee Bender's debut collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Anchor/Doubleday, $11.95), are as cheerfully whacked-out and weird as Ann Petry's are doggedly realistic. "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution," writes the narrator of "The Rememberer." "I tell no one. I don't know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It's been a month and now he's a sea turtle." Talk about being hard on a relationship.
Though they have zany touches, these aren't comedies. A deceptive little number called "The Bowl" appears to be about a mysterious piece of porcelain: "When you open the wrapping (there's no card), you find a bowl, a green bowl with a white interior, a bowl for fruit or mixing. You're puzzled, but obediently put four bananas inside and then go back to whatever you were doing before: a crossword puzzle. You wonder and hope this is from a secret admirer but if so, you think, why a bowl? What are you to learn and gain from a green and white fruit bowl?" But really it's a vessel for hopes and dreams and regrets, feelings borne along on the slight current of narrative like the traces of a stranger's aftershave.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.