This collection of ten unsettling, lavish stories has a potent link—each one brings to fictional life to the true story of a historic explorer. Murray, a previous PEN/Faulkner winner, ranges wide on this theme, profiling famous and expected adventurers like Magellan and Balboa (a trip back for the reader to 4th grade history class) as well as the completely unknown, such as Captain Coffin, a soft-hearted, turn-of-the-last century whaler who roams the Atlantic or Jim Jones, the cult leader from the 1970s who led his flock into the jungles of Guyana. No matter what the period, the historical details here are fascinating: quince jam will save you from scurvy on the high seas; trained hunting dogs make excellent, soulless soldiers.
It's a brutal frontier world Murray investigates, one she questions in all its dark detail (what are the motives of these people who roam the earth blindly? what kind of cruelty or generosity did they inflict?). Often these investigations come at the very end, allowing you to cruise along though the story, binging on exotic foreign jungles, wondering at times where this adventure is going, when, boom, you're slapped with an idea that makes you gasp. Just as Magellan and his best friend are about to be killed by a so-called heathen, for example, they laugh, seeing "no reason to be morbid in this morbid situation. Soon it will all be over and there will still be love." Some the tales are more riveting that others, say Balboa and On Sakhalin. But the masterpiece is Fish, which could have been a book on its own.The story honors an English spinster named Mary, who not only sees and speaks with fairies, but explores the globe on her own in the late 1800s, collecting scientific specimens. She may not have been celebrated in the annals of history, but her journey to independence and competence in wilds of Africa—coming from a grim, London universe that so regularly informed her that she possessed neither quality—is the kind of discovery that will stick with you for life.
— Leigh Newman
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, December 10, 2013