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Beautiful Minds
By Margaret Black

Servants of the Map
By Andrea Barrett
W.W. Norton, 270 pages, $24.95

As winner of the National Book Award for Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett is no stranger to the reading public. Her new collection, Servants of the Map, contains six inward-focused stories that deal with subtle, persistent, and sometimes wrenching loss, which leads, in turn, to transformative discovery and new life. The author’s delineation of passion and desire is brilliantly realized, and nowhere more compellingly than when her characters recognize and fulfill their intellectual obsessions. For Barrett, intelligence plays a role as seductive and alluring as the softest skin or hardest muscle.

In “Servants of the Map,” an insignificant young surveyor endures danger, deprivation and hostility in the Himalayas as he struggles to carry out his tiny part of Britain’s Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India. Initially sustained by correspondence with his beloved wife, who has even tried to foresee what he will feel and need in letters she has secretly tucked into his luggage, he eventually stops writing altogether because everything about his existence has come into question. When he understands at last the work he must do, and starts to try to tell his wife, Barrett uses the metaphors of mapping:

If his letters were meant to be a map of his mind, a way for her to follow his trail, then he has failed her. Somehow, as summer comes to these peaks and he does his job for the last time, he must find a way to let her share in his journey. But for now all he can do is triangulate the first few points.

Barrett has an uncanny ability to convey a character’s love of science. In an interview she once said that she herself had pursued a career in science until she realized that she loved taxonomy, the meticulous describing and systematizing accomplished by the great 18th- and 19th-century cataloguers of biological systems. She assumed her day had passed. But like the molecules she describes in “The Mysteries of Ubiquitin,” which mark proteins for degradation into their component amino acids so that they can be resynthesized into something new, in Barrett, meticulous botanical and zoological descriptions have broken down and reemerged as the penetrating observations of a writer.

The author can also convey the utter plausibility of past scientific theories for those who entertained them. One character spends his life defending fossils as clear evidence of Noah’s flood. Another wins the hand of a woman in love with another man by showing an interest in screwball theories about various sorts of rain. He offers her this:

“Through the earth’s crust moves a fluid body, or juice, that can turn various substances into stone,’ ” said Mr. Wells, nodding in the aunts’ direction but addressing me. Really his face is very kind, almost handsome in its own way. His linen is clean, his hands as well; but on the middle finger of his right hand is a callus always stained with ink. ‘It is also found in the sea, and in the atmosphere, in a gaseous form: moving through these layers as blood moves through the body. In the air this lapidifying juice makes pebbles, which fall to earth.”

In a departure from Barrett’s usually serious tone, “The Forest” is a contemporary story of complex humor. A tired 79-year-old Polish scientist has been invited to speak at an American scientific institute. Exhausted from his long flight, he is delivered to the institute’s huge Fourth of July cookout by two sisters. One young woman is an aggressive postdoctoral fellow; the other, a very touchy chauffeur. The young chauffeur and the old European, both outsiders by design, spend an awkward, irritable, but comic evening together. “He forbade himself to look at her smooth neck or the legs emerging, like horses from the gate, from her white shorts. He focused on her nose and reminded himself that women her age saw men like him as trolls.” A bottle of ancient vodka, an experiment with soap bubbles, and tales of European bison help transform sexual tension, cultural miscommunication, and social ineptitude into a moment of magical intimacy.

These completely independent stories include characters from earlier stories in this volume or from Barrett’s previous books. It makes no difference within each tale, but familiarity with these other moments in the characters’ lives gives added depth. “Theories of Rain” and “Two Rivers” have at their respective centers a sister and a brother separated as small children. The two never find one another again, but their memory of each other informs their existence, and parallels abound in their lives. Two stories concern the Marburg sisters, who first appeared in Ship Fever. We discover in “The Cure” what happens to that Himalayan surveyor and his family as well as to Nora and Ned Kynd, characters from “Ship Fever” and The Voyage of the Narwhal. But the story succeeds because the author so accurately evokes the world of the 19th-century Adirondacks as it became a health-giving retreat for consumptives. Barrett can make the mind passionately visceral and the body a cool thought projection. She is altogether a marvelous writer.

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