Award-winning novelist Barrett comes to campus

Acclaimed fiction writer Andrea Barrett, winner of the 1996 National Book Award for her short story collection “Ship Fever,” read excerpts from her work on Thursday. Currently a professor at the Warren Wilson College MFA writing program, her novels deal with fictional scientists of the past and their adventures and travels. As an undergraduate, Barrett majored in biology and developed a lifelong interest in scientific fields; like a scientist, she is patient with the development of ideas and characters in her novels.

During the course of the reading, Barrett read two sections from her latest novel, “Two Rivers.” The novel centers around the character development of Caleb, who first appeared in “Theories of Rain,” the story of two siblings separated as children. “Two Rivers” begins after Caleb’s death when Miriam, Caleb’s second wife, notices the absence of childhood details in his obituary. This observation prompts Miriam to describe Caleb’s life as a young man.

Adopted by Samuel, the head of a boys’ academy, Caleb is inspired to a life of learning by his adopted father’s example. When Samuel dies, Caleb inherits the academy. The death of Caleb’s first wife in childbirth sends him into a downward spiral of depression and isolation, culminating in a desperate decision to journey around the world. Barrett vividly expresses Caleb’s need for a change of pace in order to reevaluate his life.

Barrett’s style of writing exudes both clarity and complexity; she provides the reader with brief knowledge of an event and then describes the event in detail. This method of question and answer creates a pattern of ongoing suspense, so that while one question is revisited, another is simultaneously asked. Barrett is highly adept at weaving together the echoes of seemingly disparate details to paint a cohesive picture of Caleb. In one of the excerpts, the reader learns that Caleb is a widower before witnessing the details of his marriage to Margaret, planting the seed for later elaboration.

Imagery is the powerful force driving novel forward, chapter by chapter. In each scene, Barrett uses small details to illuminate broader themes by focusing on the details of life. With each image, Barrett starts with a small, ordinary object and then uses the object to propel the reader into the thoughts and emotions of a particular character. For example, the act of packing socks and shirts in his suitcase brings Caleb back to memories of Samuel’s death, which occurred during a journey to discover fossils. The thought of Samuel’s passing forces Caleb to consider his own mortality and face his fear of death. Barrett’s writing has such momentum that she can launch the reader from small, inconsequential items to the heart of the main character’s concerns.

The content of the fiction combined with the style of writing provides the reader with a nearly interactive perspective. Because we aren’t given all the facts right away we must think about the story and this brings the novel to life; it is more realistic in the sense that the reader does not know everything about the characters, but is provided with small pieces of information that might or might not later be explained. Since the novel does make the reader think, it propels the reader to continue until more discoveries are made.