A Review of
Naamah: A Novel
Hardback: Riverhead, 2019
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Reviewed by Emily Joy Stroble
Naamah is both highly sensory, and sensual, and, in many ways, about making sense of God.
Sarah Blake’s critically acclaimed debut novel based on the life of Noah’s wife, Naamah, chronicles life on the ark as the waters recede. For a principal character in such a well-known Bible story, Naamah is relatively unknown. And for a story so full of cute animals and frequently referenced in nurseries, Blake brings the graphic, even gruesome, reality of the Biblical narrative back into focus.
Interestingly, perhaps brilliantly, the narrative has a distinct feeling of drift. Blake’s previous two books are collections of poetry. Her keen understanding of the evocative power of cadence and syntax brings the aesthetic intentionality and tools of poetry, such as repetition and rhythm to bear on her prose.
She crafts an almost numb, meandering tone for Naamah’s voice by stringing together family interactions and the plot in the present, theological and philosophical musings, and flashbacks in no particular chronological trajectory. But even as the land rises from the water, patterns emerge from seeming narrative chaos. Thoughtful readers may begin to approach the book as a puzzle, remembering facts and events to connect to later passages. Thus, the reader is intimately incorporated into Naamah’s quest for meaning in a world where much of what she loves, including her lover, has been wiped out by the God she believes her husband loves more than her.
Innovative, compassionate, yet utilitarian, Naamah shoulders the massive responsibility of caring for her family and the animals on the ark. Gritty realities such as the fear of unplanned pregnancies when supplies are limited and harmony with many dangerous animals precarious is balanced against surreal dreamscapes of crystal, underwater palaces of the dead and deserts presided over by Sarai (of Abram and Sarai), a character from this story’s future.
The novel’s biblical subject matter does little to temper the intensity and descriptiveness of its challenging content. Patches of profanity, violence, and unsettling dream imagery are spread throughout the text, but the sexual content is the most jarring feature of the story. Naamah, while expressing love and devotion for Noah, has many sexual partners, including an angel and the spirit of a dead woman she meets swimming in the floodwaters. Blake is both detailed and repetitive in her descriptions, sapping most of any intended creativity or beauty out of these scenes. Because her narrative pattern so skillfully invites the reader to search for meaning, sometimes fruitlessly, the reader is prompted to seek some meaning in these sexual encounters.
If there is a meaning, it is uttered too loudly and at too severe a pitch to be understood, perhaps similar to how Naamah experiences God’s expressions of judgment and wrath.
I suspect, though, that the motivation behind including this content is to add interest to a story the grounding emotional keys of which could have otherwise been either profound grief or fatal boredom.
Blake’s handling of Naamah’s sexuality is disappointingly routine. Pockets of the Christian tradition have historically unequally criminalized female sexuality creating taboos modern writers often feel pressed to overcome with obviously “transgressive” or “radical” sexual narratives, which sadly leads to female characters being minimized to or overpowered by sensationalized sex, rather than empowered by it. While this may interrupt some readers’ enjoyment of the book, it should not destroy it.
Naamah’s interactions with the animals in her care are some of the most beautiful portions of the book, metaphors power in their subtlety so that the reader only begins to understand after seeing the same image several times.
Early in her journey on the ark, Naamah rests in a room teaming with moths. She stills herself until she feels one with them. When they die, she feeds them to the birds and reptiles.
When two lambs are born, she destroys one and lets the other live, reasoning through the necessity of her choice.
It is these hard and emotional moments in which Naamah herself commits seemingly cruel, even senseless acts of destruction which the reader is most earnestly invited to wrestle with The Flood and the wrath of God. Why save some? Why destroy others? Sometimes Naamah has reasons for her actions, sometimes they seem random. It echoes her questions about God, though she does not see the parallel.
Much of Naamah’s arc centers on defining her value, her place in the story, herself. Throughout stories and histories, particularly the genealogy-heavy opening books of the Bible, women have been defined by their roles–wife, sister, mother–their proximity and relationships to others. Perhaps in showing Naamah in her faltering relationships and choices, as often broken and beautiful, Blake is prompting us to judge her in relationship to our own theological, philosophical, or moral beliefs?
Naamah is frustrated that she is judged by association. Soon after she meets the angel, Naamah asks her, “Do you regret me as He does?”
The angel responds, “He does not regret you.”
Naamah corrects her, “He does not regret Noah. I am just loved by the man He does not regret.”
But at the same time, Naamah is distressed, even terrified that she has been singled out…for grace? For the all-but-unbearable responsibility of stewarding the last of all living things? For a slower, more painful death?
The prospect of individuality which bears judgment but not value is frightening indeed.
Naamah wrestles with a feeling perhaps familiar to many who find themselves peripheral to the traditional or cultural narratives of faith: either I was not made for God, or this God is not intended for me, because my understanding and experience does not fit with who this God is said to be. It is a feeling of having no place in God.
When God finally reaches out to Naamah it is not how she or the reader expects, and it is not to answer her questions but to talk, to have relationship. It is an unsettling depiction of God, and perhaps worthwhile because it is unsettling–it prefers to offer no answer than something trite and easy.
Like Naamah herself, Sarah Blake’s novel is provocative, curious, at times abrasive, but also often perceptive and sharply brilliant. At the very least, it insists that it not be casually passed over or forgotten.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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