Reviewed by Sean Ennis
Lindsay Starck’s debut novel, Noah’s Wife, centers on a town inexplicably inundated with a soaking, seemingly never-ending rain. The subsequent flooding threatens the local economy and tests the faith of the community in terms of whether to see the storm through (the rain must end sometime, right?) or abandon the town for sunnier prospects.
Into this troubled locale comes Noah, a young, enthusiastic minister who senses an opportunity to redeem the townspeople, whose faith in both God and meteorologists has failed. But as Noah’s zeal for his difficult ministry fades, it is his wife who must assume the mantle of leadership and attempt to save her newly adopted congregation.
While Starck’s novel certainly has the biblical story of Noah and The Flood in mind, the narrative remixes and even diverges from the original. For instance, the town’s zoo, once its primary attraction, is closed and drowning, and something must be done to save the animals.
In Genesis, this problem is solved in a suspiciously simple way. Pairs of predators and prey nestle themselves in the Ark without much fuss. In Noah’s Wife, the practicalities of such an arrangement are explored with a bit more realism. The remaining townspeople agree to take the zoo animals into their homes for safe-keeping, and the results are both humorous and dangerous. Most significantly, the presumed hero of the novel, Noah, quickly reveals himself to be overmatched by his new assignment while his wife emerges as the real locus of strength and faith.
One of the real pleasures of the novel is the supporting cast of characters that Starck has created. There is Mrs. McGinn, the domineering but fiercely loyal owner of the local diner, Adam the zookeeper who tries to balance the safety of his animals against the well-being of his burgeoning family, and Dr. Yu’s father, a widow struggling with grief and dementia but practicing to become a magician. There are many others, and the result is the description of a town that seems not only eccentric and unique but also entirely real. Perhaps one aspect of the biblical story the novel improves is the characters’ complexity.
The premise of Noah’s Wife is only as odd as the stories many of us grew up hearing. One of the challenges of updating such old but popular stories is to insist on their contemporary relevance. Politics aside, there’s little doubt the weather in recent memory has been surprising and often deadly, despite our sophisticated satellites and algorithms. And many small towns across this country are struggling to retain their identity and vitality. In this respect, Starck’s novel retains the lovely strangeness of the biblical while exploring very real 21st century concerns.
In a rare, self-conscious moment, one of the townspeople declares, “This town is not a fairy tale!” though that statement may be up for debate. God may be largely absent from the novel, but the issue of faith—especially in others, in community—is at the heart of Noah’s Wife. Though the townspeople seem to reject both religion and science, they have, it seems, each other to rely on.