My review SPOILER ALERT!
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ever since I glanced at Raleigh's News and Observer book review on Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, I knew I needed to read this book. In fact, I didn't want to read that review too closely for fear of a spoiler. About four months ago, someone came up to me and suggested my book club should read Ahab's Wife -- I thought that's a great idea, not realizing that the book was 666 pages. But, I finished the book just in time for leading my book club and felt every second of reading Ahab's Wife was time well-spent.
I enjoyed joining Una's journey of discovering her spiritual destiny, while she ponders the questions of nature vs. Christianity. The book also throws us into the life of a whaling ship (for a cabin boy and cook, not a regular sailor), a lighthouse keeper, a castaway/cannibal, and a well-to-do Nantucket lady. Naslund is an expert writer and every word and sentence has been finely crafted. She is also a poet and she makes use of her skills with her words. (Una says her first word was "s" for sad: "the letter looks like and sounds like a snake, and s begins both sad and snake.") She also likens the curl of wave, which looks like a "c", which also reminds her a cave. Both waves and caves are symbols of male and female parts in the book. Naslund is clever and subtle with her themes and symbolism and doesn't mash the readers' brains in with the stuff like William Golding did in Lord of the Flies. She also uses hands as a symbol of creation, which is important for both writing and knitting (both skills Una succeeds at). Hands also characterize Captain Ahab (his are hard and rough) and Kit (soft and feminine).
My favorite parts of the book occur before we lose Ahab (doesn't everyone know what happened in Moby-Dick?) when we meet Giles Bonebright and Kit Sparrow -- two young men who take Fresnal light measurements for Una's uncle, who is the kind lighthouse keeper near New Bedford who stands in for Una's father. Una is sixteen and falls in love with Giles, although she is intrigued by Kit's creative thinking and imagination. She follows them both aboard the whaler, Sussex, disguised as a cabin boy. I felt these two characters, along with Ahab, to a lesser extent, lept off of the page and I could see them as real people. Una, Giles and Kit all have lost their fathers at an early age and grew up close to their mothers. Giles and Kit (her first husband) teach Una how to love and prepare her for Captain Ahab, as well as Ishmael (her 2nd & 3rd "husbands" -- she actually doesn't legally marry any of them).
Death surrounds Una, but she's a survivor and doesn't let trauma take away her joy. We know straight away that her first born and mother die within days of each other and so we're plunged into her adventurous life after page 13. After her mother's death, the narrative drags until we meet Kit and Giles and then the narrative drags again between Ahab's vists to Nantucket. Some of the book could have been paired down to let's say, 400 pages, without destroying any of the themes or plot. Naslund likes to riff on spirituality and the meaning of life, which did become weighty for me, and there was a sense that Una was a female Forrest Gump who stumbles into all of the important happenings of the time while meeting key people such as Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau and Maria Mitchell. However, Naslund did such a fantastic job of letting us into Una's sharp mind, I didn't let extra passages on her spiritual awakening get to me.
The novel made me think how much Una's life was directed by men and how would have been normal in the 1830s-1850s. Also, Naslund is very realistic about communications and how hard it was to reach someone and how arduous travel could be (her mother freezes to death after her buggy turns upside down on the coldest day of the year.)But in this day and age, how much of our choices are made by men? Our fathers may help us get into a college, help us with an apartment/job, or we may follow a boyfriend to another city. I was relieved that at the end of the novel, Una is using her own skills as a writer and is not caring for everyone else at the expense of her own needs. A very modern concept, perhaps, but Naslund makes us believe Una is a modern, Victorian woman.
View all my reviews.