The biblical story of Noah gets quite specific, right down to the dimensions of the ark Noah must build to save a select few from the flood: “The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits,” God decrees in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

One detail that is never specified, however, is the name of Noah’s wife. This anonymous female figure is the center of Minneapolis writer Rebecca Kanner’s debut novel, “Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife.”

Our nameless narrator was born with a birthmark on her face, which is seen as a sign of demon possession. She is considered cursed — unworthy even of a name.

In desperation, her father gives her to Noah, a crazed old man. She reflects that such a marriage might be “more desirable than death” but “I did not anticipate with any eagerness.”

His wife soon witnesses the special way Noah is protected by the “God of Abraham” that he devotedly worships. Noah is not simply elderly; he is hundreds of years old and impervious to injury.

It’s intriguing to see Noah’s story from a different angle; the choice to illuminate an unknown female character sheds some light on the way women have often been marginalized in religious and mythic narratives.

Still, the grim world that Kanner imagines makes for a dark read.

Noah takes his new wife to live in a place called Sorum, Land of Exiles. It’s not very nice, to put it mildly.

The desperate people there survive by prostitution and thievery. They rob even the dead; necklaces of human teeth are considered tokens of status.

Our narrator’s life is also unrelieved by almost any human warmth. Noah is authoritative and remote; the three sons she bears grow up to be violent and competitive.

The closest thing our heroine has to friendly connection is a “simpleton” child, Herai. Herai is the only spark of innocence in all of Sorum. Her desire to protect this child — who, like her, has suffered merely for being born — marks our narrator’s only real, driving desire throughout the book.

This terrible landscape, in which there is plenty of gruesome murder and the only spark of hope is to protect a child, almost reads in places like a biblical version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,” though Kanner does not have McCarthy’s lyricism.

And, of course, this world is pre-, not post-apocalyptic. We know from the beginning that a great flood is coming, and that it will wipe out everyone but Noah and his family.

The trouble is, the pre-flood world Kanner imagines is so grim that it’s hard to feel much regret for its ultimate demise.


Laura C.J. Owen is a writer living in Tucson, Ariz.