Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeta NaslundCaptain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.

This is an opening line to rival the famous “Call me Ishmael” of Moby Dick. Better, too, because you spend the first half of the book wondering who the first husband will be, and practically the whole rest of the book trying to guess the third. And it doesn’t just have a better opening line, either. Where the “original”, narrated by a sailor on board Ahab’s ship the Pequod, is slow and tedious and filled up with annoyingly irrelevant dry facts about whales and whaling this retelling, narrated by Ahab’s young wife from her own very different perspective, is like a story spun from rich gold.

Ishmael wants to understand all that is possible to know about ships and whales. Mrs Maynard sent him out to interview me on masthead figures.”

And Una is no young lady, no inexperienced girl, not the “sweet, resigned” wife referred to so briefly in Moby Dick, whose horizons are no broader than the seaside whaling town where she awaits her lord. Oh no.

Born in a one-roomed log cabin at the Frontier in Kentucky, she escapes her violently Christian father to her maternal aunt’s family in the isolation of a lighthouse island. At sixteen, an impulse takes her to sea dressed as a cabin boy. Disaster strikes, and unimaginable horrors are endured, before she and her companions are rescued. She finds herself in Nantucket, married and then abandoned, with her grief lost in a passionate love for the considerably older Ahab – a love barely consummated before he returns to the sea and leaves her with a child to bear and lose.

Una is a strong woman, a fighting woman – atheist, staunchly pacifist, viscerally opposed to slavery, interested in the status of women, radical and progressive. And she is a woman who does not merely survive: she is a woman who finds home and joy even with the disaster that continually rains down upon her. She is also a woman who seems to fall into connections, even with people you and I remember now. She is friends with early feminist Margaret Fuller, she stays briefly with Ralph Waldo Emerson and even meets a five-year-old Henry James on the beach. Writes the fictional Margaret Fuller:

“I accept the universe” – that’s what I told Mr Thomas Carlyle, in London.
And that renowned writer Thomas Carlyle replied, without a shred of understanding, “Madam, you had better.” ‘Twas then, dear Una, I thought to write to you… Who is he to say?… Ah, Carlyle could not modulate my egotism, but you, the thought of your thought, brings me to a humbler plane. And it is the way of women. We allow each other our individuality. We do not insist that we dominate or control.

This is possibly the most politically charged, feminist novel I have read (Alice Walker the possible exception), yet at the same time it is exactly what is says on the cover: beautifully written, lyrical, alluring and wise. Wonderful.