Andrea Barrett has carved out a unique niche for herself in the world of literary fiction, writing about naturalists and scientists of today and the not-too-distant past. Her latest collection of short stories, Archangel, fits that niche.
Although the stories alight in 1873, 1908, 1919, 1920, and 1939, they all focus on young characters confronting change—a woman studying with a highly respected scientist who scoffs at Darwin’s ideas, a young boy who visits his uncle’s farm where naturalists study genetic mutations and motorbike-driving inventors build flying machines, an X-ray technician caught in Great Britain’s post-WWI entanglement with the Russian revolution, a researcher grappling with the mechanics of both genetic mutation and academic mentorship, and a widowed writer of general readers’ science books overwhelmed by the startling claims of a renowned scientist that the dead exist in “the ether of space.” The stories capture some of the gee-whiz nature of shifts in scientific theories and much of the pastoral beauty of natural-science research that pre-dated computer modeling. But the stories also capture the humanity of their characters; these people are not thinking-machines but vibrant, curious, often-confused people trying to make sense of the world. And when Barrett gives us a glimpse over their shoulders and into their hearts, we make a bit more sense of the world as well.