Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund

Reviewed by Christina

Complete Title: Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer

Published: 1999

It's about: This is the saga of Una, the "girl-wife" mentioned briefly by Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. Set partly at sea and partly on land in Kentucky and New England, it takes place during the decades leading up to the American Civil War.

It's not your prototypical page-turner, but the continuously unfolding drama of Una's life makes this novel an engrossing read. I'd hate to give anything away, so I'll just tease you with a few topics that are related to this novel: Quakers, whaling, quilting, lighthouses, cannibalism, slavery.

I thought: I've been reading more straightforward fiction and nonfiction lately, so it took about a hundred pages for me to get into this one. Una has a distinctive, period-accurate voice, a more flowery and poetic style than our usual contemporary writing. I shouldn't have been surprised, given that Sena Jeter Naslund is (or was?) Kentucky's Poet Laureate. Once I got into it, I loved the expressive, detailed writing. It reminded me a bit of Marilynne Robinson at first, but Ahab's Wife is FAR more plot-driven than Ms. Robinson's books.

Independent, unflappable Una powers the first-person narrative. Life throws Una plenty of unpleasant surprises, and she never succumbs to the victim mentality- at least, not for any extended length of time. But she's not annoyingly perky either; she has emotional depth. She's a wonderful, heroic character. I love reading from a strong female perspective, but in this case I wished Una were a little more flawed. Maybe she could have a temper? A tendency toward depression? Gossipy-ness? C'mon, something.

The text is interspersed with simple illustrations (see right). Usually I think pictures in fiction are superfluous and distracting, but I actually liked these. They helped me imagine the setting but they were vague enough that they didn't override my own mental images.

My only real complaint with Ahab's Wife is that at times it felt like the author was indulging in her own fantasies a bit. There are a number of tangentially related famous people who appear in the story. Una has extraneous, unlikely encounters with Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I felt they just added unnecessary length to a pretty lengthy (600+ pages) novel. There are also a couple of incongruous chapters in which the narrator suddenly changes, like Ms. Naslund couldn't resist writing from other interesting characters' perspectives.

Despite my petty grievances, I'd recommend this one. It's extraordinarily well-researched, very rewarding, and just generally satisfying.

Verdict: Definitely stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Ahab's Wife is a wonderful story, but I wouldn't call it a quick read. Settle in for a whale of a tale. Har har! (There's a lot of whaling in this book. And now that I've explained my "har" it's not very funny at all.) It'd be the perfect book to cozy up with by the fire in January.
I think some parts might be a little more meaningful if you've read Moby-Dick. I haven't read it, and I kept wishing I had. I also kept thinking about a book I loved when I was about 11, Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. They share the same period and some plot elements.

Warnings: Sex. Also some disturbing subject matter. This would make a fantastic TV series, but it'd have to be on HBO or Showtime, if you catch my drift.

Favorite excerpts:
"That's the way it is in life. You let go of what is beautiful and unique. You pursue something new and don't even know that the wind of your own running is a thief."

"'Beware the treachery of words, Mrs. Sparrow. They mean one thing to one person and the opposite to another. They are like all conventional, land-born habits. Words seem to be well-woven baskets ready to hold your meaning, but they betray you with rotted corners and splintered stays.'"

What I'm reading next: The Last Jewish Virgin, by Janice Eidus