Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner

I first read a couple of books of the Bible when I was in seventh grade. We read the story of Ruth in my English class and discussed it from the perspective of literature and story telling. Although we didn't really discuss the religious significance of the story, I don't suppose such a class would ever be allowed to happen in public school these days. But this school reading was my first introduction to the idea that the Bible contains some pretty incredible stories. I had heard stories in Sunday School, of course, but I don't know that I really connected them to the Bible and certainly not to any idea, unformed as it may have been, of literature before that class. Since then, I have read many other Biblical stories and the modern fictional accounts they've inspired. Rebecca Kanner's Sinners and the Sea is the latest of these in my reading life, looking at the antediluvian world and women's situations in it through the eyes of Noah's wife, a woman unnamed and only briefly referenced in the Bible.

The girl who becomes Noah's wife was born with a large red birthmark above her eye, called the mark of the demon by her neighbors. Her father chose to keep her unnamed so that these superstitious and fearful people could not easily talk of his daughter. But keeping her nameless and mostly out of sight doesn't keep her from being the target of grumblings, gossip, and accusations. So her father does what he thinks will best protect her, giving her in marriage to the eccentric sounding, presumed by many to be crazy, but powerful Noah, an old man with a strong calling to the God of Adam. It is with this desiccated old man, sitting on the back of a spindly donkey, that the young woman leaves her home and all she has known of the world, to live with her new husband in Sorum, a town of grievous sinners, outcasts, whores, and thieves, where Noah works tirelessly to show them the error of their ways.

As Noah does the bidding of his God, his wife tries to make a life for herself in this terrible and scary place. She is surrounded only by those whom God would forsake as she toils for her husband and eventually for their three sons. Only a prostitute named Javan, a woman who cannot be redeemed and the mother of the simpleton Herai, is kind to her and sees her as a person in her own right. But this kindness to Noah's wife is not enough to save her as Noah and his sons prepare for the foretold flood. Although it is clear that the townspeople are wicked, sinful, and beyond even Noah's proselytizing, Noah and his sons are not perfect servants of the Lord either; they are flawed and human, often nasty and judgmental themselves.

Once the flood comes, Noah, his wife, their sons, and their sons' wives are not the only people tossed on the waters of the God's fury. For many days, they continue to encounter others who cling to small vessels and even Nephilim, giants who are eventually swallowed by the raging, rising waters much as the townsfolk were.  But eventually they are alone on the sea and the waters calm.  There is strife and dissention on the Ark and Noah's wife tries to keep the peace and to mitigate the anger between her sons. At every turn in the novel, in each circumstance where she has worked to please Noah, she asks her husband to bestow a name on her, to give voice to her existence, but Noah is always too consumed by his relationship with God to attend earthly details. And so Noah's wife sails into the new world, the matriarch of all still yearning for her own identity.

Kanner's depiction of the world before the flood is vivid and realistic sounding in all of its immoral, violent, and sinful excesses. The character of Noah's wife is sympathetic and helps to contrast the difference between those unredeemed and those whom God favors. Through this unnamed woman, Kanner highlights the issues of identity and goodness, self-determination and sacrifice. But Noah's wife is just about the only appealing character in the novel. Her sons are troubled, proud, and filled with hatred and anger. They are no better than the doomed townspeople near whom they've grown up. And Noah himself is rather distasteful, treating his wife as so much furniture, simply the vessel by which he can procreate, constantly railing against the sins, and even the very beings, of those around him without stopping to consider, as his nameless wife does, the circumstances that led them to this place. Truly, there is almost no character, as drawn here, worthy of being saved, and not because they are imperfect. The novel is dark and dramatic and yet this sturm und drang becomes repetitive and tiresome.  In the end, this was a very quick read with an intriguing premise but it was ultimately a bit disappointing for me.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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