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book review

‘Archangel’ by Andrea Barrett

Pui Yan Fong

One of the ironies of Charles Darwin’s great theory of evolution is that, while it unseated God as nature’s great architect, the human race did not necessarily get a promotion.

“It may be said that natural selection is daily, hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest,” the naturalist wrote in “On the Origin of the Species.” “Rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working . . . We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages.”

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In other words, the very forces that made us will be invisible to us most of the time.

That is, unless one works in the realm of science. In which case the debate over evolution — or nuclear power, or relativity — are all-out battles. Internecine wars with traitors, assassins, spies.

Andrea Barrett’s elegant new story collection, “Archangel,” feels like a dispatch from the moving front of scientific discovery. It spans the wake of Darwin’s theory to the aftermath of Einstein’s discovery of relativity.

All of the characters in the five tales here work in the field of science: They are botanists or physicians, geneticists or mathematicians.

It is not a loose assemblage. Minor characters reappear as major ones in other stories. Students become teachers, the inheritance of their onetime mentors ghosting through them.

“You have a pedigree,” says Axel, a geneticist who appears in “The Particles.” “Just like our flies,” and then proceeds to follow a line from teacher to student through former professor. “One short line: Agassiz, Brooks, Morgan, me, and then you.”

It is, of course, a patrilineal line. There are women of science throughout “Archangel,” but they are working in a world in which women of agency are not to be trusted.

Barrett is not making a necessarily feminist point, rather an accurate one to the time. She is far more interested in teasing out the subtle and unusual ways that humans — not just their theories — overlap and intersect.

Sam, the character to whom Axel is speaking, is the son of a popular female science writer named Phoebe Wells Cornelius. We first meet her in “The Ether of Space,” the second tale in the book.

In the story Phoebe struggles to do two things: get over the death of her husband, and appreciate why an otherwise tremendous scientist spends so much time trying to talk to the dead. When she finally hears his lectures, she understands why.

The power of human attraction — and passion — emerges time and again throughout these stories as an invisible agent of change.

“The Investigators” tells of a young boy spending a summer on his uncle’s farm, where he falls under the spell of Henrietta Atkins, a middle-age neighbor, who is performing small experiments on cave fish.

She appears later in “The Island,” the book’s luminescent gem, as a young college student at a new university. In the tale she trades a professor’s shining eye for the magic of Darwin’s idea, which an alluring classmate espouses with great conviction.

Moving backward and forward in time, “Archangel” scrambles the notion of progress, and reveals, in a minor way, its hidden costs: mentors who are betrayed, ideas that are scrapped wholesale, with their useful parts.

Sam, who is given so much by his mother in “The Ether of Space,” must fight against the notion of inheritance in “The Particles” in order to remain true to himself.

Happily, the book does far more than reveal the human — and irrational — character traits of real and imagined players in the world of science.

As she did in “Servants of the Map,” her National Book Award-winning collection of stories, and “Ship Fever,” Barrett frequently telescopes out of human frailty to an almost cosmic realm.

The natural world, in all its strange beauty, is gorgeously evoked. In one extraordinary scene in “The Island,” Henrietta and other students row out into a shoal of jellyfish, “quivering like a single enormous medusa.”

The students begin scooping the creatures into separate glass jars. Tentacles plop and slip over the lips. Meanwhile, their professor — one of Darwin’s staunchest critics — stands up in his boat, calling out the genus names.

Henrietta reaches over the edge, knowing she will be stung, and while her hand goes numb her teacher describes the miraculous little mechanism — a kind of tiny whip — that is creating the effect.

“She wanted what he himself had told her to seek,” Barrett writes in Henrietta’s point of view, “the really real world.”

And yet how contentious that word — reality — is, not simply when it comes to representation. In the collection’s closing title piece, a female medic on the front in World War I wields an X-ray machine to locate shrapnel in wounded soldiers.

The technology’s special powers are not all-seeing, however, as Barrett’s heroine discovers when a soldier comes in with a muddled story about how he wound up with a tiny piece of his platoon mate’s femur buried in his thigh.

The man is relatively unharmed, and should be sent back. But he desperately doesn’t want to go. When the reality of his story is challenged, Barrett’s X-ray technician must make a choice.

There is the world as it is, and the one with us in it, and in “Archangel” Barrett once again reminds us how often — and how subtly — the really real world is what happens in-between them.

John Freeman, the former editor of Granta, is the author of the forthcoming, “How to Read a Novelist.”
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