First Published: 2001 The Women’s Press
My copy: bought secondhand
Memorable quote: “The expansiveness of the ocean spread before me, not as one who has never been to sea might imagine it, but as I knew it to be, stretching day after day…and star-pierced night after night, and endless swaying, and the creak of wood and rope, and the hissing through the water, and the smack of the wind taking sails. “Godspeed,” I said to my husband. “Godspeed.”
Thoughts: Herman Melville once wrote to Sophia Hawthorne that “women have small taste for the sea.” Yet Naslund has taken Melville’s ocean-going masterpiece Moby Dick and used it as the framework to weave this enticing liberal feminist fantasy, a female view of whaling and of the sea itself. From Melville’s scanty allusions to Ahab’s “girl-wife” Naslund has imagined the character of Una, headstrong, free-thinking, a woman whose life is dominated by the sea. Narrated in the memorable voice of Una herself, this novel tells her story from childhood onwards, and her powerful relationship with Ahab is only part of the deal. I love how this novel gives an entirely different perspective on one of literature’s most famous characters, and Naslund’s writing manages to forge a relationship with Moby Dick that manages to be playfully modern and yet still respectful of its source.
Where this novel succeeded less well for me was in the way that it also tried to include what I felt to be too many real life historical characters such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller and the astronomer Maria Mitchell. So many notable figures felt at times like a stretch too far and Fuller particularly seemed to be shoe-horned in, adding little to the overall plot. Despite this, however, Ahab’s Wife is a hugely enjoyable read and one I would highly recommend. You don’t necessarily need to have read Moby Dick to enjoy Ahab’s Wife but it’s probably a more rewarding read if are familiar with Melville’s classic too.