The English Pupil

Time flies. Staying at home for extended periods of time when I was unwell I could feel the passage of seasons, days going by excruciating slowly, each day with its own set of struggles and now I cannot believe such a large chunk of time has passed. The descent of time?

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett is a collection of short stories I wanted to reread as soon as I finished the book, and it has taken me nearly two years to do it. I bought The Voyage of Narwhal immediately after finishing Ship Fever, and recently The Air We Breathe has come into my possession but I still haven’t read them. What am I scared of  – her not meeting my exceeded expectations or idiotically trying to collect all her other books (very hard to find in India) while not reading the ones I do have. Life is too short to wait for a complete collection. You read along and hope for the best.

In The English Pupil Linnaeus is nostalgic for the past and remembers his apostles (read pupils), who went about the world carrying forward his legacy, sending him specimens and discovering new species. All of his apostles are dead, and he’s inching closer towards his own.

Linnaeus and his wife remind me of an old couple, who are in the autumn of their lives and are not at peace with it or with each other. (What is the point of companionship then?) His wife doesn’t care about his work or his legacy. His work fulfilled him but didn’t make him rich. The family’s demands weren’t being met and to her that was what mattered the most. She was the pragmatic sort. A dreamer has to be paired with a realist. It is a question of survival, you see.

A man who is known as the Father of Taxonomy, and spanned such a legacy now has trouble remembering his own name. He finds it hard to deal with the fact that he needs assistance to do the most basic of things. Life is nothing if not ironic. I would say it is greatly satisfying to look back on a life well lived. He had an illustrious career – his binomial nomenclature is the accepted standard for naming living beings worldwide. The thing is, he doesn’t dwell on what he has achieved but what is lost, the difference between what he was and what he is now.

Andrea Barrett pieces together the story in a manner where fact is melded with fiction so convincingly that one believes it has a kernel of truth in it. I know what she is talking about on account of my life science background. I know the scientists and the work they have done but unfamiliar with their personal lives. And this is where Barrett steps in with her historical fiction narrative.

The writing is beautiful and melancholic but (for me) ultimately uplifting. He has his memories which are fading away fast but if he hadn’t lived life there would be nothing to remember in the first place. He knew what it was to be young and full of ambition. Some people live their lives without finding their purpose, searching for meaning but never finding it. Some people grow old without knowing what it is to be young. If we are not careful, this is the end that will await most of us.

The story is crammed with information for a life science student. I was delighted to see Potamogeton mentioned. After so many years of making fun of the name I find out it means something beautiful.

If you appreciate science, especially the living world, I suggest you give the short stories of Andrea Barrett a go. Start with Ship Fever, which won the National Book Award for fiction and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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