In the beginning, the word of God was mediated by men, and they believed patriarchy to be a celestial order, and the work of women went unrecognized.
Things need to change around here. We might start with “Naamah,” Sarah Blake’s fresh telling of the flood story as seen by Noah’s wife, now rescued from submergence.
Blasphemous, carnal and committed to exaltation, “Naamah” delivers its truths in a torrent of heresies. In biblical exegeses, Judaic scholars named Noah’s wife Naamah. With her modern interpretation of the Book of Genesis, Blake fills the mostly absent references with a wholly unruly woman.
No thought nor indiscretion is too despicable to escape Blake’s empathy as she follows Naamah through construction of the ark, the wet vengeance of God and her becalmed wait — afloat with her husband, three sons, their wives and the stink of sacred animals — for land. Stripping this primeval creation story down to its characters, Blake lays bare the biblical tendency to shunt aside the women from whose bodies our society emerged.
God disappoints. Naamah seeks rapture in the company of women, lovers to whom she cannot lay claim, belonging, as they do, to other men, even her son. Startled by her own betrayals, she takes comfort in the company of the dead, who understand her despair.
Blake knows the world of women — “every sight a chore to be done” — and the divine burden of motherhood. Naamah is reluctant to claim her birthright after the “great abandonment” of the flood. For this mythological matriarch, forgetting is no mercy. Embodying a collective trauma, inundated by doubt and desire, nevertheless, she persists.
The Bible is the most translated and enduring work of literary fiction, a genre-crossing compendium of psalms and stories written by many authors over the span of centuries. Their combined text, an intergenerational collage of forms, continues to inspire modern iterations like Blake’s, a fabulist expansion upon the lean rigor of Colm Tóibín’s “The Testament of Mary” and an urgent feminist response to the Old Testament and reworkings of its flood myth by Robert Coover and Bernard Malamud.
Blake is a poet. In her lyric debut novel, Naamah escapes the hold of the ark to feel God’s wrath on its deck, “her brown skin beaten pink,” her body too tender to be held for days, “overwhelmed by her new understanding of the deaths of the people God no longer wanted.” In her grief, “Naamah wonders if God has considered this: women so distrustful of Him that they might never bear children for the new world.”
Together, the family reckons with their responsibility to salvage entire species from extinction, including our own. Sinful and spared, they find purpose in a fate they survive under duress and in direct conversation with God.
Naamah is saddled with hallucinatory insights that scare her and yet answer a deep need for transcendence. Sometimes, she can’t see the animals. Sometimes, she can breathe underwater, where she faces angelic intervention with equanimity and no small amount of lust.
Blake intersperses her stark tale with Naamah’s lush, animist dreams, her body metamorphosing at will, disgorging from her subconscious the carcasses of whales ashimmer with bees. Traveling through millennia, her descendant Sarai appears to affirm the flourishing of their family tree, and with it, humanity. In these chapters, time — and the novel’s pacing — slackens, expands, pivots and delivers the protagonist back to the narrative like a tornado tearing through town only to set a cradled babe, yet living, on the earth.
Annie Dillard wrote, “It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time — or even knew selflessness or courage or literature — but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.”
No longer at the beginning of our journey, like Naamah we are “conspicuous with living,” to borrow Blake’s phrase, and perhaps have sighted our end. As the seas rise, our society will meet the consequences of collective inaction. What will we save, and whom? To which path are we committed, since innocence is gone and knowledge free for the taking?
“Naamah” dares us to center the experience and wisdom of women as we devise answers to these questions, reminding us that the final covenant — our future — belongs to our children, the latest of a long lineage that emerged, crawling, from the same bitter water to which we will return.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of “Subduction,” a novel forthcoming from Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020.
By Sarah Blake
Riverhead. 304 pp. $26