Ahab's Wife is bound to be remembered as an epic. At almost 700 pages and spanning roughly the first half of the 19th century, the novel follows the life of a rather atypical woman named Una, whose curiosity and native intelligence push her beyond the bounds of her family, her region, and her gender.
The novel begins with white knuckles: the adult Una is freezing to death in the midst of childbirth during a blizzard which has just killed her mother. Despite this, she unflinchingly deflects a posse headed by a dwarf on the trail of a runaway slave (who has hidden in Una's bed). The slave helps deliver Una's child, who dies upon birth.
And that's just the first 10 pages. Una's predicament causes her to reflect upon the circumstances that brought her to that point, which begin with her mother sending her off to live with an aunt in Nantucket because of her insane father's physical brand of religious zeal. With a keen eye for a child's interest in the natural world, the author portrays Una's upbringing among her loving, if isolated, cousins. Her reintroduction to the outside world comes in the form of two sailors who fire her mind with newfound scientific knowledge.
Donning a man's name and appearance, she joins the sailors aboard a whaler and has the bad luck to meet a foul-tempered whale that sinks her ship. After a harrowing period of deprivation at sea laced with finely wrought accounts of cannibalism, dementia, and the dogged will to survive Una is rescued and winds up aboard Ahab's Pequod. And it is there that another adventure begins.
Rich in historical detail and clever hat-doffing to other great books, Ahab's Wife nevertheless is capable of standing alone. Much of its appeal (as with Moby Dick) lies in its characters' journeys toward self-knowledge, bravery and cunning during bad times, and humor, love, and wonder in good ones. Mostly, however, the novel is a surprisingly sentimental description of the trickle-down of Enlightenment ideals to the scurvy masses, a progression away from the shackles of religious dogma to a more empirical, pragmatic approach to life.
Adam Dunn writes reviews and features for Current Diversions and Speak magazine.