AHAB'S WIFE by Sena Jeter Naslund

This literary historical novel, set in 1830s New England, is the highly colorful and appealing story of Una, the wife of the vengeful Captain Ahab from Melville’s MOBY DICK. What a delight it was to read this story!

Told from Una’s unique point of view, this tale of female empowerment and adventure on the high seas is interwoven with a strong message of tolerance. Over the course of this meaty tome, Una is transformed from an athiestic child raised by a strict Kentucky Christian to a strong, independent woman with a powerful sense of spirituality. Throughout the course of her remarkable life, Una grows to adulthood while living in a New England lighthouse, runs away to sea disguised as a cabin boy, is shipwrecked and forced to resort to cannibalism, is rescued and married to a fellow survivor who subsequently becomes a raving madman, then is divorced and remarried to Ahab, with whom she enjoys a deeply satisfying spiritual and physical relationship that results in a child before Ahab loses his leg—a loss which becomes the engine of his inevitable destruction. While grieving for Ahab’s loss and raising her son, Una develops bonds of respect and friendship with prominent writers, scientists and abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her spiritual desert is eventually watered from the spring of transcendentalism, which fuels her healing and her ultimately successful search for happiness.

This book astonished me utterly! I am sometimes not the first reader to pick up a literary novel, as I demand a strong narrative thread, brisk pacing, and a happy ending from my reads. Nonetheless, I LOVED this book, in part because the story IS driven by a strong narrative and dynamic, sympathetic, heroic characters. The fascinating friends Una embraces, the very different men she loves, the traumas of every kind she survives, the beautiful, restrained and dignified words used to tell the story, and Una’s own passion are remarkable. I sucked down this 650-page book in about four days-—astounded and delighted in every way. For me, this was a book worth buying and owning, for the pleasure of reading it again and again.

I heartily recommend this read for fans of historical fiction, and for anyone who enjoys stories of nineteenth century seafaring, thoughtful romance, and the brisk, salty wind of a New England-set narrative. Difficult issues (i.e. cannibalism) are treated with sensitivity and grace, and the sexual aspect of love is handled with discretion. For me, AHAB’S WIFE was an excellent example of a literary historical novel with strong commercial appeal–similar to Arthur Golden’s MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, which is another favorite of Xenia’s.

BTW, AHAB’S WIFE inspired me to run out and rent MOBY DICK with Patrick Stuart, which was a nice, enjoyable way to absorb Melville’s story. And I think it’s a credit to how well-drawn Una’s passion for Ahab was in AHAB’S WIFE that, in this particular movie, Patrick Stuart as Ahab made me pant! Holy great white whales, he was sexy in this one…


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