Servants of the Map: Stories, Andrea Barrett 2002

Barrett is a national treasure in the realm of short story writing.  Her earlier book ‘Ship Fever’ won the National Book Award in 1996, and this volume was short-listed for the Pulitzer.  Her stories are characterized by several unusual features that make them an adventure.  First, she drops you right into the middle of the action with no explanation of what has come before or who the characters are. That information follows as the story unfolds both forward and back, and the effect is to immediately engage you.  Second, her characters are memorable and quite wonderful and the main characters reappear in other stories in the collection, usually in a minor reference or a brief glancing encounters.  I was often searching my memory for ‘Who was Lavinia?’ or “Where did I encounter Gillian before?’. One such example has Max, the primary character in the eponymous first story  reappearing briefly (for one night) in the last story, and Lavinia, the primary character in the second story is alluded to in the final story but only in one sentence.  Barrett goes even further in this game of tying the stories and characters together by alluding to a voyage of a ship, The Narwhal, in the final story, and Narwhal is the title of her first book.  With a focus on female characters who are scientists working in historically important topics, Barrett’s work is unusual and beautifully done.  Highly recommended!