Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer

It's almost a cliché to describe someone's prose as beautiful, but I've encountered very few author's for whom the description is more apt than Sena Jeter Naslund. Her writing is lyrical and clear and all of her descriptions seem rimmed with a kind of golden light (for reasons I have yet to figure out). Her novel Ahab's Wife is the perfect vehicle for such an alluring style.

Naslund built Una, the titular wife, around an almost throw-away reference made in Herman Melville's Moby Dick in which Captain Ahab laments leaving his "girl wife" only a day after their wedding. And that's the only description Naslund had to work with when she created Una, one of my favourite literary women.

The story starts in rural Kentucky (well, the story really starts in the middle, explaining Una and Ahab's relationship, but then it moves back to the beginning). Una is an only child, named for Spencer's The Faerie Queene. Una is a pretty good kid, but her father is a religious extremist and disapproves of many things his young daughter says or does. Eventually, after a bad beating, Una is sent to live with her mother's sister and her family, who operate a lighthouse on the east coast.

After the dark woods and her oppressive father, Una finds life on the rocky lighthouse island pretty freeing. She plays with the goats and her little cousin Frannie and, despite initial reservations, she starts climbing the lighthouse tower. The steep an winding staircase exhausts her at first, but she works at it and eventually can run up and down it with ease. At the top, she trains her eyes to see ships, glaring into the sun and stretching her sights far out to sea.

One day, she spots a small boat, which eventually makes harbour on the little island. The occupants, two young men named Kit and Giles, become regular visitors to the little island and soon become good friends of Una and Frannie's. Then one day Kit and Giles announce that they are joining the crew of a whaling ship and probably won't be able to visit for a while. Una, longing for a little adventure (she's grown up on the island and now finds it a bit small), runs away during one of her aunt's visits to town and joins the crew of the same ship as a cabin boy, her job confirmed when she climbs the mast in he harbour and spots a whale.

She soon becomes friends with the captain's son, along for the journey to learn his father's trade, and eventually makes herself known to Kit and Giles, who are horrified at first but come to appreciate her presence. But the fun can't last forever, and after they've harvested a few whales, giving chase to another ends in the ship being stove and Una, Kit, Giles, the captain and his son and various other crew members finding themselves adrift in a lifeboat. Naslund doesn't shy away from unpleasant details or uncomfortable realities, and the cannibalism that keeps Una, Kit and Giles alive long enough to land on Ahab's ship is slowly revealed in painful detail.

But Giles cannot live with what he did to save himself, and he quietly commits suicide by falling from the rigging. And so there is just Kit and Una, who get married in their grief, despite the fact that Kit is already starting to lose his mind. Ahab marries them on his ship and when the Pequod arrives back in the Nantucket harbour, Una and Kit disembark to find his family (who live there) and set up house. But Kit is violent and crazed. He blames Una for his life and Giles' death. He is abusive and unpredictable, and then he is gone. Kit runs off, and although he survives he sends word that he will never return, leaving Una a widow whose husband is still alive.

And then there is Ahab, perfectly written into the story. And even though Naslund tells you in the title that Una and Ahab will be married, it's almost a surprise when it happens. But it does, of course, in the most surprising and natural way. But Ahab is captain of the Pequod and he isn't famous for his obsession for nothing. He leaves Una the day after their wedding and is gone for well over a year. But Naslund keeps him in the story, either through his musings or letters, or Una's thoughts of him, which run deep. Their marriage is real, and it's so vivid that it exists almost as another character in the novel.

She becomes pregnant and decides to return to her mother in Kentucky to have the baby. There, she loses both in a horrible snowstorm, but gains the friendship of a runaway slave, who she helps find freedom. Eventually, after Ahab's return and subsequent departure, Una does have a child, a son she names Justice. And although Ahab dies chasing the white whale (Naslund can't change the original script), she does give Una a kind of happiness in the end, like a soft bed at the end of a hard day's work.

In Ahab's Wife, Naslund gives you the life of a woman, from beginning to middle age. It isn't always a pretty or a happy life, but it's a life you want to inhabit anyway. Una is a remarkable invention, almost more so because everything about her story is so unaffected. As leading ladies go, she is one you will want to revisit and obsess over just as much as Ahab did.

Ahab's Wife
by Sena Jeter Naslund
First published in 1999 by William Morrow & Co. Inc. (Cover image shown from HarperCollins edition)

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