A Modern Riff on an Old Testament Climate Catastrophe
By Sarah Blake
The Old Testament has its own tale of ecological catastrophe in the story of Noah, instructed to save all species from a flood of waters upon the earth. Sarah Blake’s debut novel, “Naamah,” puts Noah’s wife at the center of a really very wild and superbly intelligent reimagining. (Lindsay Starck’s 2016 novel, “Noah’s Wife,” undertook another use of this material.) The pitfalls of biblical retellings are many — they can be gushy, platitudinous or even cutely modernized — but this one is not. It is set in an elemental agricultural past, on a flooded desert populated by angels, dead children and birds with the voice of God, and is written with a crafty poetic gleam.
It begins with a family on a boat. “When someone dies and you forget how they look or how they laughed, that is how they forgot the land.” Blake can invoke prodigious events in plain yet properly large terms. “She is humbled by the Flood, but how long can someone reasonably be asked to experience humility?” There’s an amused sanity under the gravitas.
Naamah (the name is mentioned in Genesis but only linked to Noah in the Midrash, the commentaries) has hard daily labor on the ark. She is the one patching a cage a walrus has gouged, attending a ewe giving birth and feeding a weak lamb to a restless tiger. (The descriptions of animal life are meticulous and terrific.) Noah is wise and pleasant, but he’s often offstage.
When Naamah makes a rope swing to propel herself off the boat to swim, the novel’s more mysterious inventions appear. An angel underwater becomes a distinct and complicated character — fleeing, beckoning, explaining, acting out desire. There’s quite a lot of sex in the story, some of it with Noah but most between females, its sequences and sensations vividly described. Naamah remembers that after her first childbirth, “she told Noah how impressed she was with her body, and he was glad for her, but she’d meant in the way one is impressed by God, with a measure of fear, a respectful distance.” Female physicality is repeatedly evoked in this spirit.
There’s no shortage of images to engage us, but this book has the task of providing narrative suspense when we already know the outcome of events. The progress of the Flood itself — waiting for the rain to stop, the longer trial of waiting for the floodwaters to dry out, the sending out of the dove — is effectively re-seen. Of equal weight and length are Naamah’s adventures underwater, her secret life with heavenly and dreamlike creatures — who can predict what cockatoos and vultures might say? Naamah has bouts of theological argument with these unearthly figures — she cannot give up her anger at “Him,” the God who decided he had to kill off most of the earth’s residents for their sins.
But I would say this novel is more like a song than a religious text. Even its less convincing bits — spells of arbitrary invention, shifting postmodern metaphors — come off as forms of playing. It adopts a stance of wonder, even toward the innocently lethal wolves and tigers, and the writing is most sublimely clever when depicting the dilemmas of dealing with all creation in one locale.
In my elementary school we were told that a great flood really happened, hence its appearance in Mesopotamian epics as well as in the Bible. This theory has since been discredited. What strikes me now is the capacity of ancient peoples to conceive of such a thing. If “Naamah,” this 21st-century riff on climate disaster, is too exasperated with “Him” to be a monitory tale, it also left me with an abiding admiration for the writer’s charged powers of imagination.
Joan Silber is the author of eight books of fiction, the most recent of which is the novel “Improvement.”
By Sarah Blake
298 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.