In her new novel, Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund takes perhaps the least eligible bachelor in all of American literature and makes his marriage and pillow talk the very stuff of her book. It is a tall order she sets for herself, and one that she does not fail in filling. There's no mistaking Naslund's Ahab for Melville's Ahab, but her captain has his own, less imposing charms to offer. The real focus, of course, is on the title character, the wonderfully wrought Una Spenser, Ahab's wife, in whose labyrinthine adventures of the heart Ahab's hand is but a single lovely room.
Naslund is no stranger to the challenges of a novel based on the reimagining of a literary figure. Her novel Sherlock in Love begins with Watson's decision to write a biography of his old friend. After putting an advertisement in the paper for information about Sherlock Holmes, Watson discovers many details of the famous detective's life that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never had the time to mention. Ahab's Wife is a decidedly more ambitious project, for who is the archetypal forbidding patriarch in our literature but Ahab? And yet Naslund's attempt to show us another side of his life is wholly believable and deeply moving.
The novel begins with Una Spenser delivering Ahab's first child in a rural cabin in Kentucky, while the captain is at sea. The baby dies, as does Una's mother, who has gone to find a doctor. She explains her reasons for starting her narrative there: "I needed to tell those terrible things first, to pass through the Scylla and Charybdis early in my voyage of telling; otherwise, I feared I would turn back, be unable to complete my story, if those terrors loomed ahead." Safely past, she returns to her childhood and begins her story there. After a terrible fight with her Methodist zealot father, Una is sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are lighthouse keepers near Rhode Island. It is there that Una first discovers her love of the sea. The love is not immediate. Upon first glance at the sea, Una says with contempt, "It's not wild enough." But when two handsome sailors, Giles Bonebright and Kit Sparrow, arrive from New Bedford, Una becomes enraptured, first with them, and then with the ocean they speak of so reverently.
By now Una's mother has become pregnant with her second child, and mother and daughter have plans to meet in New Bedford. Una waits for her mother at the Sea-Fancy Inn, which is across the street from the Spouter Inn, which readers will remember from Chapter Three of Moby-Dick. When Una's mother sends a letter explaining that she has miscarried and will return home to recuperate, Una is devastated. She cuts off her hair, buys an outfit of boy's clothing, and runs down to the wharf to find a ship that will take her as cabin boy. With her eyes well trained from days spent in the lighthouse, she proves her worth as a lookout aboard the Sussex. Her first time at the top of a mast occasions a Melvillian description: "Up and up! How to tell you about it? You have looked from the edge of a cliff? Climbed your own trees? Those efforts suggest a whiff of rigging-climbing -- as the volatile oil from an orange peel suggests the full flavor of its ecstatic juice." Naslund has drunk deep from the well of Melville's prose in preparation for this novel, and this shines though in her rich, extravagant language.
Here begins the heart of the novel -- Una's adventures at sea. It is here that she comes of age and here that she meets Captain Ahab. Many other characters from Melville's novel appear. Tashtego and Daggoo are found jumping from their unsuccessful whaler to join on to the Pequod as she pulls into port. We find Pip nearly burned to death in a house fire, then rejecting the Nantucket school for a chance to go to sea with Ahab. Even Ishmael himself appears, asserting that his name is David Pollack, but "Call me Ishmael."
Naslund uses these references to the events in Moby-Dick in interesting ways. When Ahab leaves Una behind as he sets out for another two-year voyage on the Pequod, we know that this is to be his final trip because Una sees Ishmael and Queequeg board the ship at the last minute. Using our knowledge of this outcome, Naslund turns Una's sighting of the two sailors into a dark portent. In this and many other ways, Naslund's novel successfully weaves itself into the margins of Melville's. The tremendous sacrifice made by whaling families -- of men who leave their families for two or three years at a time, return for no more than three or four months, and then set out again -- is rendered more vividly in Naslund's book. Never in Moby-Dick do we feel the numb outrage of those short, insufficient visits between voyages as we feel it in Ahab's Wife, after the Pequod departs, and Una walks homeward, reviewing all the things she hasn't told her husband.
Una's suffering is the blood of this wonderfully written novel. As she gropes and strides (and writes, for the novel is her memoir) her way through the numerous tragedies that befall her (Ahab's death is only the beginning), her determination to cherish her pockmarked life is as moving as it is vast. And for those who make it to the end of this 666-page masterpiece, the novel's conclusion holds a clever surprise.