Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: Sinners and the Sea by Rebecca Kanner

Sinners and the Sea
By: Rebecca Kanner
Publisher: Howard Books
ISBN: 978-1-4516-9525-0


A large, wine-colored birthmark has stained the nameless girl's forehead since birth, setting her apart as other, different, one to be feared. Left nameless for fear of bringing further calamity upon her life, she has lived as an outcast, only ever craving a name, a place to belong, and a sense of identity -- but instead feared as the spawn of a demon. At nearly twenty, long past the age when most girls have married and started families, the girl and her beloved father eke out a bare existence as outcasts among their own people. As tempers flare, and neighbors threaten to forcibly remove the marked girl's presence from their midst, her desperate father strikes a bargain with the one man who will look beyond his daughter's mark. Noah, a righteous man in a land of sinners, seeks a woman to wed and give him sons. Desperate to live, and desperate to save her father, the girl agrees -- and is given in marriage to Noah, a man hundreds of years her senior, who speaks to a God she doesn't know and whose purpose will change her life forever.

I'm always eager to try new authors who dare to explore the scriptures through the lens of fiction. For her debut, Kanner has taken the arguably unorthodox route of bringing to life the nameless woman who was Noah's wife, an individual referred to a scant handful of time sin Genesis, and only in passing, but whose impact on the world to people of faith is undeniable. Within the pages of Sinners and the Sea, Kanner seeks to illuminate this shadowy figure -- who was this woman, mother of nations through her three sons, forever immortalized in scripture yet never given a name, an identity? By giving a voice to Noah's wife, Kanner restores the feminine narrative to this history writ in patriarchy, examining the fall, the flood, and the world's rebirth with a voice whose impact was always present, undeniably important, yet has remained shrouded in mystery.

Noah's life and the story of the flood encompasses barely four chapters in Genesis, most of which covers time on the ark and subsequent descendants. There is little social context given in the pre-flood verses, and so, although "the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and...filled with violence" (Genesis 6:11), I was ill-prepared for the utter bleakness and depravity our marked heroine encounters when she journeys to Noah's home. Sorum is a land of outcasts, violence, and horror, with Noah as the proverbial "voice in the wilderness" speaking his message to a very un-receptive audience. Reading Kanner's account of the pre-flood society is not for the faint of heart, though it is eye-opening in its unvarnished depiction of unbridled excess and depravity.

I confess to being somewhat troubled by the novel's characterizations of Noah, and later his sons. This is an unabashedly feminist text, and as such I applaud it and the author for giving voice to the female side of the population in biblical times. Noah's wife is not an Esther, given a grand platform on which to stand -- in her everyday life she is, if you'll pardon the term, rather ordinary -- but that doesn't make her life or contribution or place in the Judeo-Christian tradition any less important. However, given the limited verses mentioning Noah or his sons, here they are painted an almost wholly unsympathetic light. Indeed, Noah is not redeemed to some degree until the very end of the novel, where he finally opens up about his struggles with doubt and fear to his still-nameless wife. Without clear scriptural basis, painting Noah and sons, particularly Japheth, with broad brushstrokes of extreme religious radicalism to the point of villainy is unsettling at best to this reader.

Sinners and the Sea is, in many respects, a gorgeously-rendered novel. Kanner has a gift for description and her prose has a fluidity that spins a heady web, pulling you into the story of Noah's nameless wife and her struggle to reconcile her mark, her lack of identity, with her husband's all-consuming purpose. In many respects this is the biblical version of a dystopian novel. Compared to novels I've read that have brought Jacob, Joseph, and David to life, Kanner's depiction of Noah's time has the other-worldly feel of a nightmare-ish fable. Seen only through the eyes of Noah's nameless wife, God is almost wholly absent, as Noah's faith is a foreign, strange thing to his wife.

I have mixed feelings about this book as a work of biblical fiction -- from the world, to the making of the ark, to the passengers who board it, there seems to be a greater mark of artistic license than I generally look for in fiction of this ilk. That said, this is a heart-breaking, thought-provoking story. With her stark, high-impact prose, Kanner paints a bleak portrait of the depths to which man can sink, where everyone is, to some degree, painted in varying shades of gray -- for much like the fiery madam Javan, Kanner forces readers to consider the oft-times dual nature of humanity, and how even in the midst of utter depravity, light can be found. While Sinners and the Sea takes a great deal of license with the biblical account of the flood, it is a powerful portrait of a woman coming into her own in a male-dominated world. A sinner can be a saint, and the righteous can fall short and sin, but I take comfort in God's constancy and provision, and that reminder is, perhaps, this dark, challenging, thought-provoking book's greatest gift.

About the book:

The young heroine in Sinners and the Sea is destined for greatness. Known only as “wife” in the Bible and cursed with a birthmark that many think is the brand of a demon, this unnamed woman lives anew through Rebecca Kanner. The author gives this virtuous woman the perfect voice to make one of the Old Testament’s stories come alive like never before.

Desperate to keep her safe, the woman’s father gives her to the righteous Noah, who weds her and takes her to the town of Sorum, a haven for outcasts. Alone in her new life, Noah’s wife gives him three sons. But living in this wicked and perverse town with an aloof husband who speaks more to God than to her takes its toll. She tries to make friends with the violent and dissolute people of Sorum while raising a brood that, despite its pious upbringing, develops some sinful tendencies of its own. While Noah carries out the Lord’s commands, she tries to hide her mark and her shame as she weathers the scorn and taunts of the townspeople.

But these trials are nothing compared to what awaits her after God tells her husband that a flood is coming—and that Noah and his family must build an ark so that they alone can repopulate the world. As the floodwaters draw near, she grows in courage and honor, and when the water finally recedes, she emerges whole, displaying once and for all the indomitable strength of women. Drawing on the biblical narrative and Jewish mythology, Sinners and the Sea is a beauti­fully written account of the antediluvian world told in cinematic detail.

*Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the review opportunity!

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