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Andrea Barrett's The Air We Breathe 

Novel blends science, history and political allegory

The Air We Breathe
By Andrea Barrett
W. W. Norton, 297 pp.

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The key word in the title of Andrea Barrett's new novel, The Air We Breathe, is neither the subject or verb but the pronoun "we": The book is very deliberately written in the collective voice. Its last sentence is "This—this!—is what we did."

It is 1917, just before America's entry into World War I, and "we" are the tubercular patients of Tamarack State Sanatorium in the Adirondack Mountains. (Tamarack is based on Saranac Lake, which was then to consumptives much like what Reno was to divorcees.) Here is what "we" did: allowed blame to fall, through gossip and rumor, and through the lethargy and self-interest of illness, upon an innocent man for an act of terrorism he did not commit, and encouraged his desertion of the place that might have cured his disease.

The catalyst for this persecution is Miles Fairchild, a wealthy, idealistic industrialist recovering from tuberculosis in a comfortable private rest home. Fairchild visits Tamarack State and initiates a weekly discussion group there with its motley patients, many of them immigrants, and some of their caregivers. Soon ideas are flaring about science, society and culture. The late Industrial Age was bursting with invention and technology, and "every day brought a new astonishment" to Tamarack State: relativity theory, automobiles, paleontology, collective farming and revolution in Russia, X-ray machines and radical new art.

War, Barrett tacitly reminds us, tends to corrupt or co-opt innovation. As the United States is drawn into the Great War (with its own horrific novelties: automatic weapons, mustard gas, Big Bertha), the passions of Barrett's characters—not just intellectual but physical—ignite. The conflagration spreads jealousy, paranoia, error and malice.

Barrett, winner of the 1996 National Book Award, mentions George Eliot twice in The Air We Breathe, and she shares Eliot's sharp but surprisingly tender gaze upon humanity and its frailties, her unhurried narrative pace, and especially her keen scientific curiosity. (She also shares Eliot's subtle but fierce feminism: Her narrative is largely driven by two ardent young women.) Indeed, all of Barrett's work has drawn heavily upon science, and her latest is no exception. She quotes textbooks at length and engages her characters in cerebral endeavors and discussions.

Barrett's prose, as befits a scientist, resists flashiness and lyricism, although an occasional poised writerly flourish sprays welcome color on the book's steadfast Adirondack gray. But there is again that Victorian restraint; The Air We Breathe is a short novel, but it reads, and is best read, slowly. Its mechanical plotting is clearly not intended to manufacture surprise or suspense. Barrett makes the conflicts and their consequences transparent in order to investigate how enthrallment makes us susceptible, and insularity makes us cold. We can be maleficent even in repose, and almost childishly protective of our cocoon communities.

Tuberculosis was a persecuted disease, with a squalid, tenement reputation. Barrett takes pains to show Tamarack's immigrants as intelligent, educated people unfairly targeted by the lonely zealot Fairchild. The mysterious and insidious attack of the tubercular bacilli mirrors the infection of Tamarack State with rumor, xenophobia and vengefulness—the air we breathe, indeed. Barrett began work on the book not long after 9/11, and although persecution-as-physic goes back at least as far as the Salem witch trials, this historical fiction is unquestionably a work of its fearful time.

The Air We Breathe has no protagonist, but it teems with important characters that Barrett draws quickly but very clearly. Barrett has earned that clarity: many of these people, and their families, have appeared in her earlier work. In fact, as Barrett's career lengthens, few of her characters remain singletons for long. Nearly everyone in this novel has kin in her earlier work—and the extensive genealogical chart at the novel's end suggests that there is more legacy-making to come. Communities are fragile and corruptible things, but Barrett is building, book by book, a stronger, closer, brighter and better one than ours.

Andrea Barrett appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh, on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. Visit www.quailridgebooks.booksense.com or call 828-1588.

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