The second in a series of short, shallow book reviews.
All eight of these stories focus on science or scientists, especially 18th and 19th century biology: Linnean nomenclature, Mendel, Wallace (but not Darwin!). As an avid consumer of science writing for laypeople, I found it fascinating to read pieces that included similar sorts of (factual) content but in the totally different setting of a work of fiction. Another aspect of the work I enjoyed was its complete humanization of science; one very rarely finds these subjects given such a treatment, even in profiles of individual scientists. The one unappealing aspect of this approach was that many of the stories were depressing — in those two or three stories in which a main character survives the story with some amount of hope, potential, or optimism, Barrett is sure to throw in some death or misery afflicting minor characters.
The last (and by far the longest) of the stories, from which the book draws its name, was riveting. It focused on the Irish potato famine/fever of 1847, and in particular on the quarantine station for immigrants at Grosse Isle, Quebec. I found this story deeply affecting, and highly recommend it. One random point I thought was interesting (and I’d love to hear from any other readers about this) was which characters got to speak in a first-person voice; in particular, Lauchin Grant, Annie, Nora, and Arthur Adam Rowley (though his letters) all spoke directly to us at some point, but Susanna Rowley never did.