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Barrett, author of The Middle Kingdom (1991), has used science as a conduit to understanding the human psyche in this gorgeously imagined story collection. She mixes historical figures, such as Gregor Mendel and Carolus Linnaeus, with those of her own invention in tales about the quest for insights into the workings of the natural world, including the human heart. The title piece, a gripping novella, takes place during Ireland's Great Famine, when tens of thousands made the cruel transatlantic journey to Canada, only to suffer the horrors of a raging typhus epidemic. A young, disenchanted Canadian doctor agrees to work at a quarantine station in the hope of impressing the woman he loves, but he is in for a rude shock. The understaffed station is in a state of absolute crisis, and emaciated immigrants are dying by the hundreds. In a quieter, more contemporary vein, Barrett combines science and love in "The Littoral Zone," a story about two marine biologists who fall in love, much to the dismay of their respective families. Barrett's stories are precise and concentrated, containing a truly remarkable wealth of psychology and social commentary. --Donna Seaman
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The quantifiable truths of science intersect with the less easily measured precincts of the heart in these eight seductively stylish tales. In the graphic title novella, a self-doubting, idealistic Canadian doctor's faith in science is sorely tested in 1847 when he takes a hospital post at a quarantine station flooded with diseased, dying Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. The story, which deftly exposes English and Canadian prejudice against the Irish, turns on the doctor's emotions, oscillating between a quarantined Irish woman and a wealthy Canadian lady, his onetime childhood playmate. In ``The English Pupil,'' Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who brought order to the natural world with his system of nomenclature, battles the disorder of his own aging mind as he suffers from paralysis and memory loss at age 70. In ``The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,'' a precious letter drafted by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who discovered the laws of heredity, reverberates throughout the narrator's marriage to her husband, an upstate New York geneticist. Barrett (The Forms of Water) uses science as a prism to illuminate, in often unsettling ways, the effects of ambition, intuition and chance on private and professional lives. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved