The princess of whales

<i>Ahab's Wife</i> by Sena Jeter Naslund (The Women's Press, &pound;12.99, 668pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is the great American text. It is the novel everyone reads at school or college; the book against which American literature measures itself. So setting out to write a novel complementary to Moby-Dick is supremely ambitious for an American writer. Sena Jeter Naslund has presumed to do it because Melville's tale of Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale that deprived him of his leg is specifically about men. Her companion piece is about women, and her heroine is the wife Ahab refers to in a few passages as a "sweet, resigned girl" whom he wedded when he was past 50 and left to go to sea.

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is the great American text. It is the novel everyone reads at school or college; the book against which American literature measures itself. So setting out to write a novel complementary to Moby-Dick is supremely ambitious for an American writer. Sena Jeter Naslund has presumed to do it because Melville's tale of Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale that deprived him of his leg is specifically about men. Her companion piece is about women, and her heroine is the wife Ahab refers to in a few passages as a "sweet, resigned girl" whom he wedded when he was past 50 and left to go to sea.

Jeter Naslund makes this "sweet, resigned girl" into a brave, unconventional adventurer called Una Spenser. As a child she incurs the violent wrath of her pious Kentucky father by failing to believe in God. She is sent to live with her aunt, uncle and little cousin in a lighthouse, where she learns to love the sea. She runs, improbably, away to sea disguised as a cabin boy. She survives months adrift in an open boat after her ship is wrecked by a (black) whale. She "marries" without the bother of a formal ceremony - three times. She lives where and how she pleases, abandoning those who would hold her back, driven on by her desire for experience, will to survive and carelessness of mores.

In one of several self-referential parts, Jeter Naslund compares the two towers of Chartres Cathedral, built in different centuries, to (by implication) her narrative and Melville's. The books, like the towers, may be quite different, but they belong together. Unfortunately, being different but related does not necessarily make two stories equal. Nor does length necessarily make an epic. Jeter Naslund's elaborate history has its strengths , notably the characters who inhabit and visit the lighthouse of Una's youth, and the evocation of places and of shipboard life.

But the book fails to mirror, or even apparently to perceive, one of Melville's crucial contributions. Moby-Dick is a landmark of American literature because, like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses, it was innovative in form. It changed the possibilities of what a novel could be. It used both narrative description and dramatic dialogue. It devoted chapters to the contemplation of detail. It was experimental with language.

Ahab's Wife does none of this. Although it has several narrative voices, and it successfully imitates florid 19th-century prose, its consistency is varied only by the archaisms of Quaker speech or the imperfections of illiteracy. And there is no sense that the book is ground-breaking with form.

It clearly aspires, however, to be ground-breaking with its content. Its feminist raison d'être is carried through a checklist of characters, arguments and incidents. Una's friends include a black girl, an old lady, a dwarf, two gay men, a female writer and a female scientist. Not one of the women is less than stoical and sisterly. Not one warrants any kind of condemnation. Una ponders a friend's interest in science : "What of the dark issues of our time - of slavery, of the position of women, of temperance , of the crisis in religious belief ?" As the book unfolds, these are duly ticked off, along with familiar themes of feminist ideology, such as the retrospective elevation of quilt-making to a fine art. This is Melville's world reinterpreted with hindsight and a modern agenda. Whatever our sympathies, the book has too palpable a design on us.

Embedded in the story is also the question of what goodness means. We are told that "you do not have to be perfect to be good". Una forgives herself crimes that drive others to madness or suicide. She can be careless of the feelings of those who love her, and her life is focused on her own wants and emotions. Yet others admire her. The author suggests that a person may be good merely by being true to herself. Some readers may find this hard to swallow.

There is an entertaining game in matching this story with Melville's, and identifying his characters - including Queegueg, Starbuck and Ahab - with Jeter Naslund's amplifications of his portraits. There is a clever joke in Una's ultimate encounter with the Ishmael who narrates Melville's epic. But Ahab, recast as Una's romantic soulmate, sits oddly with the obsessive of Melville's imagining, even accounting for the madness he is driven to by the loss of his leg. This book can stand alone as an episodic fantasy of a recognisable heroine in strange settings. But Melville would never have imagined Ahab's wife like this.

Comments