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Book Discoveries: Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer

Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer
Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Jeter Naslund took a brief reference in Moby Dick mentioning Captain Ahab’s young wife (and son) and from that seed, she planted and grew herself a transcendent novel.  What kind of woman could hold up against the magnificent (and stubborn) Captain Ahab?  If Naslund had asked herself this question, then she easily found her answer in Una.  I don’t know how long I have waited for a heroine like her.  Reading Ahab’s Wife was like swimming through an extraordinary adventure – constant awe at the strength of Una’s character, and such pride.  It takes a woman like Una to brave the storms she faced and to still hold a willingness to live, and allow herself to be happy.  For the novel’s entirety, you are in the hands of an amazing story-teller.  The book itself is like a ship: Naslund your captain and Una your first-mate (though sometimes, it may seem to be the other way around).

Our book begins:  “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”  It’s every bit an adventure as it is a spiritual journey.   Naslund has created a woman who can not only hold up against the infamous Captain Ahab, but who also sees into his innermost being while retaining her own integrity.

Within the first few chapters, Una, struggling under the religious microscope of her father, is sent to live with her aunt, uncle, and young cousin, Frannie, on a remote lighthouse island.  While Una is living there, the family is visited by two young men, Kit and Giles, who come to change the lens in the lighthouse.  For me, this is where Una’s story becomes something other than the tale of a young woman.  Her initial interaction with the men along with her means of socializing reminds us that we are not in the hands of a weak narrator – she isn’t swooned or flirtatious any more than she allows herself to be.  I love her control, her concentration, and above all else, her compassion.  I believe that the strongest female characters are not the ones who are susceptible to fate, but those who choose to be vulnerable – thus claiming their independence.  They do not experience pain because they are weak; they experience pain because they allow themselves to.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the freedom and honesty of the story.  It is a pet-peeve of mine when (I feel) an author is bending their characters to their will to make their story work, rather than letting the characters be themselves.  This allows them to make errors that are true to themselves – rather than ones that are just convenient for the narrative.  Ahab’s Wife gives breathing room to everyone – I believed in everyone’s choices, their actions, and especially their understanding of the human spirit.  Una is open to the pain and the joy of everything she endeavors.  I couldn’t have asked for a better narrator.

For me, the novel is broken up into the phases of Una’s life.  We see her chapters from the lighthouse island where she first meets Kit and Giles.  We follow Una through her turmoil at sea.   We experience her first marriage, we react to her second, and we ultimately witness, however briefly in the novel, her last.    We mourn with her, we rejoice, we bond, we believe, we argue.  I would say this book was all-encompassing for me.  Una is my favorite heroine, and I don’t think this novel could have been written by any other author or in any other way.

I loved it absolutely, completely.

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