On of the purest joys of reading a novel is getting so sucked into a world and lost in it that you forget about the rest of the world. That hasn't happened to me often in recent years but it did over the past week as I read Sena Jeter Naslund's monumental tome, Ahab's Wife. It is nearly 700 pages long and I cannot tell you how much I loved the world Naslund paints with lovely prose and a heroine who is so likeable in all her imperfections that I didn't want to say goodbye to her.
Naslund has written something fabulously creative. She took a few lines from Herman Melville's Moby Dick in which it was mentioned that Ahab had a wife and used them to weave a lush, fascinating, historically accurate world. Some of the situations are perhaps fantastical but then we are talking about a wife whose husband was carried off into the sea by a gigantic, snow white whale. The story is told with beauty and lushness of language but also letters and occasional chapters written from a different point of view, all handled very skillfully.
Una Spenser (named after the heroine and the author of The Fairy Queen which is quoted in the original opening of Moby Dick) grew up in Kentucky but, because her fundamentalist preacher father was so hard on her, her mother sent her to New England to live with her aunt's family in a lighthouse off the Massachusetts coast. As a teen Una becomes enchanted by two young sailors, Kit and Giles, and, when she is sixteen, disguises herself as a boy and signs on as a cabin boy on a whaling ship. So her life of adventure begins.
What follows is a grand adventure with some terrifying twists and turns, some almost painful to read. After a shipwreck and three brutal months at sea doing unimaginable things to survive, Kit, Giles and Una are rescued but their ordeal is too much for both Kit and Giles though in very different ways. Eventually they make their way back to Nantucket and there Una meets Ahab whom she had encountered before at sea. She marries him and, as their life together – and apart for he is at sea most of the time – progresses, Una displays a love and a devotion to her older but magnificent husband that just, frankly, left me breathless. Who could have ever imagined Captain Ahab as the sexy, loving man we see in this book. Their love scenes are handled with delicacy and discretion but seem all the more passionate for that. She refers to them as “taking our bliss” which expression I found deliciously charming.
Of course, eventually the inevitable happens and Una is alone with their child in 'Sconset where she climbs to the roof of her cottage every night to watch the stars, look for whales and dolphins, and study the horizon in the hopes of seeing the blaze of try-pots aboard a whaling ship coming in to port. Throughout Una's journey we meet other interesting historical figures of the time. During a visit to Concord she has an encounter with some of the Transcendentalists and, when her young cousin comes to live with her, she gets involved with Unitarian-Universalism and with the abolitionists. But the heart and soul of the story is her endless love for her whale-captain husband, whose acceptance of her and wordless understanding of the shame she feels for what she did to survive, is so poignant and beautiful.
Because I live in Gloucester (in fact the first Unitarian cemetery in America is in my backyard) and because I love both New Bedford and Nantucket, I was completely drawn in by her descriptions and her historical details. This is a book that will stay with me for a very long time and I am glad of that. It is a world I wouldn't mind being able to retreat to whenever my imagination – and Sena Jeter Naslund's vision – can take me there.
Thanks for reading.