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Book Review: Naamah by Sarah Blake

If you look at all this water and distrust the olive leaf, you’re forgetting how little you know. You’re thinking yourself more than you are, and yet using that to belittle yourself and your life and the world . . . I use my understanding of the unknowable world to call myself to be unique and wondrous among its wonders. I don’t become arrogant about what my eyes can see and what I can understand. I don’t dismiss myself or my life either.

I originally decided to read the novel Naamah by Sarah Blake because I thought it would be a good addition to my library’s book group collection. I am the collection developer for those books, so honestly, every book I read I think “would this be good in the book group collection?” But this one specifically I read thinking it would be a good add. I live in a highly conservative place and I have offended several local book groups by including books with any one of the dreaded “this is not a good book!” trifecta of sex, violence, and swearing.

Naamah(The order of offensiveness, if you’re curious, is 1. Sex, 2. Swearing, 3. Violence. Which is always strange to me because violence is the top thing I avoid in novels, if I HAD to be pushed into saying I “avoid” anything. Really what I avoid is bad writing, stupid plots, pointless stories, books that only mirror back the way I look at the world…Oh, wait. Tangent over.)

This is definitely not the book for the book group collection.

Naamah is a retelling of the bible story of Noah’s ark through the perspective of Naamah, Noah’s wife. A queer retelling of Noah’s ark. And there is entirely too much lesbian sex for the book group ladies. (There is also married sex and sex with an angel, if you're curious.) I know exactly what they would say. They would be horrified that someone would turn Noah’s wife—whose name is of course not mentioned in the bible, but is included in Jewish midrash—from a decent, God-fearing woman into a bisexual woman. They would also say that the story is obviously wrong. Noah and his family were saved because they were the last good people in the world, yes? And if Naamah were bisexual, she wouldn’t be good, so she wouldn’t be saved, so what’s the point of this book anyway?

However, that was not how I took this story. In fact, I think it would make an excellent book club choice because it asks you to consider: What is good? What makes a person “good”? What is the nature of God? What is the nature of our relationship with God? Where do we draw the line between what “God” says is good (and by “God” I mean “the interpretation of God by religion” which is different than God most of the time) and what we as individuals think is good? (“How does God get something wrong?” is the question that Naamah says is the first question.) What does it mean to be a woman? How do we balance shaping our lives with the other lives we have to take care of? How does one individual fit into the world and how do we love and see the world we live in?

All of these are questions I am wrestling with myself, in my own life, so to slip into someone else wrestling with them helped me to feel…validated, I think. Not in my answers, really, but in the struggle itself. Naamah’s defining question as she lives on the enormous boat with all of the animals is “Why was I saved?” She is also fairly mad at God for destroying the world; she isn’t sure if she wants to ask them her questions or simply turn her back on them. (Or maybe that is where I am in my life, and I am projecting my issues onto Naamah. If I had a book club I would raise this question.)

As the story moves along, she begins swimming in the flood waters, where she meets an angel of some sort who she falls into a sort of relationship with; she also meets the spirits of some of the children who drowned, who are living with the angel instead of progressing into whatever comes next. She helps and loves her family on board the boat, too. I loved seeing her relationship with her daughters-in-law; each one is unique (one is a painter who makes paintings of the world as it used to be) and she is able to give them the unique things they need. She sleeps and dreams—I think about a quarter of the story is Naamah dreaming, but they are the story, in some sense. She plants and tends to a small garden; she loves her husband. She also takes care of the animals, in both brutal and tender ways. There are several scenes with animals that broke me in both painful and beautiful ways, and I’m not sure I could decide which one I liked the most. The moths? The lambs? The tiger.

No, the tiger scene was pivotal.

The book draws to a close with Naamah and her family on dry land again. There are no real answers given; she doesn’t come to understand why God erased the world, other than it is their creation so they could. But she comes to a sort of peace, and is able to move forward in recreating her world.

This was a hard review for me to write in a certain way, because my connection to this book is deeply personal. It is a book brought to me at a time I needed to read it. I didn’t get any of my questions answered, either, but that is OK because that is the process I am in right now. But it helped me to see that the questioning itself, while painful, is not only valuable but necessary. My world sort-of is a post-flood world, except I was the God who has been creating the flood. Or, at least, part of the starting-over is coming from my decisions to act instead of to be acted upon. Or, to be more precise: in a sense, I am like Naamah was on the boat. Using the time while she doesn’t have answers to look for answers. I haven’t made it to dry land yet. When I do I think a part of Naamah will be with me, helping me to scout out the best place to build.

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