Based on the story of Noah, using the source material of the Torah and Old Testament of the Bible, Kanner tells her story in First Person Present, a style that has become increasingly popular over the last twenty years. It brings an immediacy to the tale that would be lacking in any other form.
Noah’s story is told here from the perspective of the nameless woman who becomes his wife. Born with a birthmark on her forehead, she is condemned as a Demon Child and only her father’s status as a prosperous farmer keeps her from being stoned to death. At nineteen, she is well-past marriage age and has given up hope.
The world depicted is primitive and barbarous, mankind in one of its earliest, most feral incarnations. The land is in the midst of a long drought and the people of her village have decided to kill her as a sacrifice to the gods. Just in time, her father procures a husband, Noah, a man hundreds of years old who is a disciple of the God of Adam.
Needing sons, he takes her as a wife and brings her to the most wicked city in the land, Sorum, where mercenaries kill each other every day and all of the women are whores. This is the evil world that God has decided to destroy. Their sons are Shem, Japheth, and Ham. When God commands Noah to build an ark to take only his wife, three sons and their wives, along with two of all of the animals on earth, Noah gets to work on the project.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction and not an attempt to recreate the Biblical story. Most of the characters belong to Kanner and not the Bible and she has even made changes in the Biblical characters to suit her purpose.
In this vicious world, there are only three people who seem to actually be pure and good. One of them is Noah’s wife, one is her third son, Ham, and the other is Herai, the simple-minded daughter of a whore.
Noah himself is a dried up old man who has a slavish devotion to his God and his calling to convert the sinners of the world to the God of Adam. There is no joy or love in this man. Shem, their oldest son, a man with no control over his sexual urges, constantly sneaks away to sleep with the whores and eventually gets one of them pregnant. Japheth is a cold-blooded killer who is angry all of the time.
Although God is not a character in the book, his personality is apparent through his actions: He is bitter, angry, and indiscriminate in his killing.
The paradox of the novel is that while God is determined to destroy most of humanity and the animals of the world for their wickedness, He apparently doesn’t care that the world is repopulated from sinners, such as Shem and Japheth, which will ultimately result in another world of sinners. There is no net gain from his killing.
The book itself is gritty and raw, very hard to put down once you get started, and the story is expertly told, full of action, and engaging right to the end, but it is not for readers who think that life is all sunshine and lollipops.
Ignoring for a moment the impossibility of the story itself and allowing the fantasy and mythology to be enough to carry it, this novel is about the brutality of life on Earth. The God who runs this world is brutal and uncaring, arbitrary and unreasonable. The fact that he exists and is capable of such madness is almost unthinkable, yet that is the reality of the world of Sinners and the Sea.
It reminds me of a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:
God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said, “Man, you must be putting me on.”
God said, “No.” Abe said, “What?”
God said, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me coming, you better run.”
Abe said, “Where you want this killing done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61.”