Sinners and the Sea tells the story of Noah’s Ark from the viewpoint of his unnamed wife. It’s a fascinating and beautiful read. The novel has been favorably likened to The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, which I liked … but this book I loved.
Noah’s tale barely takes up four pages of the Old Testament (Genesis 6:9). Kanner fills in the gaps with an impassioned look at what life was like for Noah’s wife, the family’s struggle with the sinners around them, and the giant, terrifying adventure of the ark. The wife is a sympathetic narrator and quickly drew me into her story.
Kanner does a wonderful job conjuring up this ancient world with spare but vivid prose.“He turned and ran across the flat, sun-scorched earth so quickly that he sent up a cloud of dust. It seemed to pursue him as he got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared into it.”
Kanner evinces the biblical tone and feel of the period without being stilted or dragged down by it. “Three hundred goats do not make a man a prophet,” says Noah. He is portrayed as rather gruff and rigid, but for me this lent authenticity to the book. Noah would have to be pretty hardened to take on such a task, knowing that everyone else in the world will die. Also, I really liked the shifting dynamic among the three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Kanner plays out the tension as the local villagers, who initially ridicule the ark, and then grow fearful when it nears completion. Once the waters come, the story takes on the panic of the Titanic in reverse, as people desperately try to crawl up the sides and climb aboard. Noah’s wife struggles with the sight of these people—the sinners—swirling and crying for help in the roiling seas. As the rains continue, she laments “I never knew how sharp water could be.”
After several weeks adrift, Noah admits to his wife that he misses the sinners. We realize this is partly because they are so alone and partly because preaching to them gave Noah a sense of purpose.
There are subplots and characters that I have not even touched upon, as I don’t like to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that Kanner did a great job of injecting human emotion (and some action-packed excitement) into a story that has become so rote in our culture. I also loved the way she wove in mythology: Methuselah, the long-lost mammoths, and the Nephilim race of giants.
Full disclosure, I met Rebecca Kanner a few years ago at a writers’ conference. (This did not influence my opinion. I bought the book myself and was not asked for a review.) Through Facebook, I’ve learned that she has a passion for literary authors such as Charles Baxter, Hilary Mantel, and Louise Erdrich. But, like me, she also devoured G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and The Hunger Games trilogy.
I was especially curious to see what kind of book she would write. In Sinners and the Sea, Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read.