There’s not much sex in the Bible — at least, explicitly — but there’s plenty of it in “Naamah,” Sarah Blake’s début novel about Noah’s wife as she struggles to maintain her own sanity and, of course, the sanity of her family members. After all, Naamah is the matriarch from whose efforts the rest of humanity will spring. Her daughter-in-law gets pregnant, in a rare instance of heterosexual sex, yet the bulk of the sex scenes are between Naamah and a female angel or between Naamah and Bethel, the lover she left behind in the flood and whose presence she misses more with each passing day. These scenes distract Naamah from a longing for her past, her fatigue with present, and her worry for the future all at once. Blake uses these moments, along with the preponderance of dream scenes to establish Naamah’s discontent with the lot she’s drawn. What could have been equally, if not more, interesting, would have been greater interaction among the characters aboard the ark as another means of exploring this female perspective of a well-known Biblical story.
Naamah’s role is to keep others happy without consideration for herself, even if she wants to say (as she does in the novel’s early pages): “‘I am not fine where I am. I am on a boat in the middle of a flood that was high enough to cover trees. And wasn’t there a mountain to the east of us? Did it cover the mountain? I haven’t seen anything in months.’” In this way, Blake’s retelling transcends its Biblical roots and grounds itself firmly in 21st century dialogue surrounding the concept of “emotional labor.” At one point, Naamah journeys to the present day to see how humanity turns out, and confronts the existence of air conditioning and “Law and Order: SVU,” and probably wonders if feeling stifled, bored, and unfulfilled aboard the ark is really worth it. She finds it baffling and unfamiliar, but is at least comforted by the fact that God ceased with what Naamah seems to think is massacre of the human race. It’s an odd scene, but it deftly unites watery past and modern present.
Naamah goes to many dream-places, befriends a cockatoo she names Jael, has sex with an angel (many, many times), has sex with another daughter-in-law (it’s all above board, but you’ll want to read the book for more context), and hangs out with dead children in another dream world. These scenes lend the novel a sense of ethereality, but detract from the very real tensions between Naamah and Noah, her sons, and their wives. This resentment bubbles beneath the surface, especially between husband and wife, but the reader doesn’t get much access to it because Blake doesn’t grant it to us. If these are the people Naamah has been trapped with for an incalculable amount of time, wouldn’t there be arguments, things left unsaid, petty grievances? Beyond a few short scenes, these relationships are not explored.
Interestingly, the lack of setting — beyond the scene of the boat’s various decks and the expanse of water around the characters — might make it difficult to write a novel that can stay afloat long enough without becoming boring, but Blake describes Naamah’s interior life without dissolving into spiraling rumination. The characters’ dialogue is fast-paced, mimicking actual speech well enough to be believable. In short, Blake writes a good story: She makes us care about the characters in one way or another, and as the novel progresses, many of them have parts of their inner psychology revealed in a way that makes the reader forget that these people are, theoretically, based on rough sketches of their Biblical counterparts. Naamah receives the greatest interiority. She confronts very real anxieties, but is soon reminded that she has to go on with her day of taking care of others and the animals. There’s no point in going stir-crazy about God’s intentions or whether the water will ever recede.
Blake’s book could not be labeled as “comic,” but there are moments of levity too. The angel, a messenger of God, shocks Naamah in saying “fuck you,” God appears as both a vulture and a teenage boy (and in both shapes manages to annoy Naamah and become annoyed by her), and a scene between two of the sons perfectly encapsulates the (funny but tragic) male confusion about the elusiveness of the female orgasm. Such moments grounded the otherwise ethereal and unmoored backdrop of the overarching story.
The reader finds out that Naamah is beautiful — “her smile left her eyes large and sparkling in the sun, as if two golden beetles had been living there all along, flashing back and forth to black, waiting for moments in the sun like this, at the edge of the boat” — but that she sometimes wants to forget that she’s a woman in the first place. This thought only appears at the very end, but adds another layer to Blake’s female-focused retelling: Maybe such stories shouldn’t be about emphasizing womanhood, but simply about emphasizing “being,” as told by a new, fresh voice.