The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

This book was one of my acquisitions from the book swap last year that I held in work. It is a collection of short stories that I thought, from the blurb on the back, were all different stories of people on a boat fleeing the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800's, but this only applied to the story of the title. The rest of the stories were on various subjects with science and scientific breakthrough's being the common thread.
The story of the title was the last one in the book, so you begin with the other very short stories first, some of which are only 10 pages long. Ship Fever itself is more substantial at 100 pages.
I read the first story and found it so dull I remember very little about it, other than it exploring 'the hybridization of the edible pea'. This phrase entertained me more than the actual story.
The second story was set in Uppsala in Sweden, a place I have actually visited, so it grabbed my attention initially, but this also faded and I could feel myself rushing the end to get it out of the way. At this point I considered giving up on the book entirely.
I then re read the blurb on the back, to try and reconnect with why I had picked it up in the first place, and most of the comments were about the title story, so I headed there instead and skipped the rest.
It starts with a letter written in 1847 from a Canadian in Ireland to his wife back home, about how dreadful the conditions are there during the famine. Her friend Lauchlin Grant reads her the letter. He is a doctor and has always loved her. Feeling inadequate against her husbands exploits, Lauchlin, in a fit of determined heroism, signs for a job at Grosse island, meeting the immigrants on the ships as they arrive from Ireland to administer necessary health measures before ushering the immigrants further upstream to Quebec and Montreal.
If only it was that simple. Lauchlin, and also us as readers, receive a severe wake up call, as the conditions on the ships and their wretched cargo of destitute people are described in horrific detail. The scale of misery goes beyond anyones imagination. It is in these descriptions that the text grabs hold of you and you are moved to plow onwards, to find out what the outcome is going to be for these characters. This story not only explores issues of survival, but also the value of family, and the problems faced by those who find themselves aliens in another country through no fault of their own.
This story saved the book for me and is evidently why it is the only story referred to in the blurb on the book. It is a highly moving account of a desperate episode in history and I cared for the people caught up in it. It almost seems as if the other stories in this book are from another writer. To me Ship Fever is the only story that I will remember from this book, and I am glad that I gave it a go. You can read an interview with Andrea Barrett about Ship Fever by clicking the link.

1 comment:

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds very interesting - it is a shame that you did not enjoy all of it but it s=certainly sounds as though the stories deal with fascinating themes of displacemenet etc.

thanks indeed for sharing


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