One of the best-known stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that of Noah, father of nations, who built the ark, saved the animals and repopulated the world. Little is said of his wife Naamah, and it is to this forgotten figure that Penn State MFA alumna Sarah Blake turns. She imagines her way into Naamah’s life—the constant care, cleaning and feeding of the animals; the coordination of packing and meals; and the emotional and mental labor that figures into so many women’s daily lives. All of this is magnified by 11 months on an ark inhabited only by family and hungry animals.
Blake makes plenty of bold decisions—birds speaking with the voice of God; Abraham’s wife Sarai, otherwise known as Sarah, speaking to Naamah from the future; an angel as Naamah’s lover; and a host of drowned children living some kind of half life beneath the sea that surrounds the ark. Naamah is not visited by the voice of God prior to building and inhabiting the ark; instead, Blake shows us how she must go forth as Noah’s helper and trust his vision while questioning a God that would destroy the world. She also questions whether she is saved for her own sake, or for Noah’s.
Naamah is a deeply rendered character: doubtful, brave, confident and sexual. Her dreams, hallucinatory and strange, give her a way to exit the confines of her everyday life. So does her fluid sexuality, whether she is with her husband of several centuries or the women with whom she finds solace.
The book is intensely physical, the doubt of Naamah played against the corporeal reality of sex, birth, animals and feeding. On the ark, everything must be practical—animals born on the boat are fed to the predators to stave off hungry attacks. Naamah swims searching for bodies, signs of the world that was. She urges her daughters-in-law not to get pregnant, since they have no idea how long they will be on the boat and how long supplies will last. Blake wrings a great deal of suspense and urgency out of a story where we know the end.
The writing itself is lyrical though the description is exacting. Blake tells of the coordinated efforts to bring the predators off the boat and back to land after the flood waters subsided, a process that takes two days and endangers the family. So many details are so richly imagined in this text, from a thicket of insects to the dissection of a tumor.
Readers expecting a traditional rendering of a Biblical story will not find it here. This novel acts more in the Jewish midrash tradition, which focuses on interpreting the story rather than exactly relating the story as it is written. As in many stories from religious texts, doubt is at the center of “Naamah.” The book raises the question of how to recover faith when so much is lost. Naamah’s doubt, and her ability to act in spite of it, makes her profoundly human, a woman worth recalling a millennia later.
Camille-Yvette Welsch is a teaching professor of English at Penn State and the author of the poetry collection “The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom.”