Brian Melendez's Reviews > Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's Wife

Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner
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it was amazing

There are several women in the Bible who play key roles at pivotal points, but remain unnamed and voiceless — perhaps none more important than Noah’s wife, who becomes the ancestor of all humanity that has lived after the Flood, but who is known in scripture only as her husband’s wife and her sons’ mother. Rebecca Kanner has taken this blank canvas and given Noah’s wife a story and a voice.

Of course, the canvas isn’t really blank: the story of Noah and the Flood is universally familiar. The mention of Noah himself immediately conjures up an image of an old man with a white beard, the last of the ten antediluvian patriarchs, the prophet of the Flood, captain of the Ark. But even of Noah we know little: Genesis describes him only as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” Of Noah’s wife we know even less.

Kanner starts there: she introduces her protagonist as “a marked and nameless girl,” unnamed and marginalized even in her own story because of a disfiguring birthmark that her neighbors attribute to demonic influence. Only her father shows her care and kindness; long after she would normally have been married off, he arranges a match for his daughter with the 500-year-old Noah, to whose sordid hometown she journeys with him on a slow donkey.

Noah is not a sympathetic character. Not only is he old, he is grouchy, pessimistic, and disgusted with the low moral estate to which humanity has fallen. (“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth ....” —Gen. 6.5–6.) Noah is God’s prophet, the only one to whom and through whom God speaks, but Noah’s sour, crazed fulminations are about as persuasive as a wild-eyed street-corner preacher on a soapbox who thunders hellfire and damnation at the passersby. Noah is insensitive to the point of cruelty, capable of unkindness and even injustice. His neighbors tolerate him only because of his wealth, and the magical protection that charms his property.

Noah’s wife is not some post-feminist icon, but a woman of her times: a dutiful wife and mother in a harsh and inhospitable world, where she makes a home and raises a family. She understands the order of things: “I knew I was the least needed of all those God had put on the ark. Noah was the prophet of His word, and our sons and daughters-in-law were tasked with repopulating the world. I could clean and weave. But so could everyone else ....”

Her sons are vividly drawn, warts and all: the eldest is popular but lecherous, the youngest is loving but foolish, the third is holy but violent. Together they build the ark and weather the flood, but only after finding wives (sometimes at the very last possible moment) and beating off their drowning neighbors and relatives. The story is not for the faint of heart. And Kanner is fully aware of her world’s cruelty and unfairness: as Noah’s sons lord it over the slaves who are building their ark, their mother enjoins her son Ham to an act of kindness toward a slave whose own kindness has endangered him, so that “we will not appear unjust to the rest of the men.” Ham’s sarcastic answer speaks volumes: “If we appeared just, they would get up and leave.” Noah’s wife’s humanity shines through best amidst the apocalypse: “Our heads are full of people who are not on the ark. We think of them more than we did when we knew them, and sometimes more than we think of one another.”

Kanner’s storytelling is clean and unadorned, reminiscent of Hemingway at points. She remains generally faithful to the biblical narrative, with an occasional homage; for example, in the Bible, a literal century passes between Noah’s oldest son’s birth and the Flood. The sons in Kanner’s book are young men, but her weary Noah laments, “Between the day Shem was born and the first day of the rains, I aged a hundred years.” His wife reports, “I do not know how this could be true, but I believe him. ‘I am sorry,’ I say, ‘that I did not notice.’”

“Sinners and the Sea” is a feat of storytelling, a fresh and original take on a familiar story.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 28, 2013 – Finished Reading
October 8, 2013 – Shelved

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