Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“That night I dreamt of him as he was that day, his face titled to the heavens, tears flowing from his eyes. In my dream, the tears puddle around him, and the puddles grew into a shallow pond. He began to cry harder, and the pond spread beyond the reach of his arms, and then rose.”
The story of Noah’s ark is a familiar one, but Sinners and the Sea reframes the tale, giving us the perspective of his unnamed wife. Born with the mark of a demon upon her brow, her father refused to name her for fear his neighbours would denounce her. But even this act cannot protect her, and so her father gives her in marriage to Noah, an old and powerful adherent of the God of Adam, who promises to take her far away. Unfortunately, Noah is not an easy man to be married to, and he has made his home in Sorum, a village of sinners and exiles he hopes to save. His wife is isolated there; the closest thing she has to a friend is Javan, a prostitute so hardened even Noah despairs of her salvation. Noah’s wife bears him three sons, but the boys acquire many of the vices of their neighbours, causing Noah to fear he has failed his mission. But when his God calls for the flood, his sons are among those who will be saved, despite their vices and rivalries, which are only enhanced by the challenge of building the ark, gathering the animals and living in close quarters. Together, this troubled family will be responsible for repopulating the world.
Kanner’s antediluvian world has a slightly magical feel without seeming overly fantastical. Noah and his family are tent-dwellers and olive farmers, but Noah is also more than 500 years old, and his cousin, Zilpha, calmly anticipates living to the age of 900 years. Zilpha’s people are mammoth tamers, but events aboard the ark are such that mammoths do not survive into the post-flood world. Similarly, the giant Nephilim—descended from the sons of God and the daughters of men—find no welcome aboard the ark, so that Kanner’s flood also steals much of the magic from the world, even as it washes it clean.
Kanner’s depiction of Noah is dark but not unkind. Noah is a very old man whose only connection to the world comes through the sinners he struggles to save, and by whom he is overwhelmingly rejected. With an impossible task set before him, his mind is more with God that with his family, and he is unfamiliar with how to treat a woman. Despite his distant behaviour, Kanner deftly depicts small flashes of affection within their marriage. Though the burden of his calling weighs heavily upon him, he is not complete when there are no sinners to save, a fact which calls into question the role he will play in the world after the flood, though prophecy foretells that he will live another three hundred years. Kanner’s Noah is a realistically flawed man, and one who is much more relatable than a perfect servant of God could have been. Although some readers will undoubtedly find this portrayal to be disrespectful, Sinners and the Sea has much to offer religious and non-religious readers alike because it is thought-provoking rather than inspirational.