The anguish and ecstasy of the ark’s matriarch

Sarah Blake’s surrealist novel about Naamah—Noah’s wife—is mesmerizing.

“It’s a novel about Noah’s wife. She has sex with an angel.” This is perhaps the worst way one could describe Sarah Blake’s mesmerizing surrealist novel, and yet it was repeatedly how I found myself summarizing the book when friends asked what I was reading.

It’s a flippant way to describe what turned out to be a substantial and lovely piece of literature. But when I started reading, I was far from convinced that the world needed another retelling of the flood narrative, and I worried that the sex would be nothing more than a cheap attempt to sensationalize a familiar story. (You won’t believe who Noah’s wife slept with next!) While that wasn’t the case, I should probably say at the beginning that this is a book with a lot of sex. If that—or if reading about characters from Genesis as flawed, hungry, doubting humans—will offend you, then this is not the book for you.

But Naamah is about much more than sex. What I should have said when friends asked about the book is that it’s a story about a woman who wrestles with survivor guilt and works to rebuild in the aftermath of ecological destruction. Or that it’s a novel about motherhood and how women can bear to become vessels of life in a world marked by death. Or that it’s a novel that uses an ancient tale to ask questions that are contemporary and urgent: What does it mean to be a woman? Who gets to be named, and remembered, in our stories? What are we willing to sacrifice in order for something new to be born? What kinds of violence are acceptable to God, or for the “greater good”? How do we continue living in the wake of loss?