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Not the End of the World – Geraldine Mccaughrean

October 12, 2016

nteotwThere’s a long tradition of retelling the flood/Noah story: in the medieval Mystery Play cycle the shipwrights included in their version a shrewish and very resistant Mrs Noah, an angel and a devil. Then there’s the jaunty nursery song about the animals going in two by two “for to get out of the rain”. McCaughrean’s novel is quite different in tone. No ridicule and playfulness here. This is a highly serious work, dark in spirit, intent on being challenging. It takes Noah, his ark and all those within it and tosses them violently on the waves of her imagination.

It takes the story literally but from the women and children’s points of view (and a few of the animals). McCaughrean seizes on the invisibility of the women and gives names to the three wives. She also adds a daughter, 14-year-old Timna. It is Timna who narrates much of what happens, from the moment the first raindrops fall to the discovery of dry land after the deluge. The story unfolds in short chapters. Sometimes the other characters take over and their perspectives add a new dimension to the evocation of the great catastrophe. Bashemath, Shem’s pregnant wife, reveals her arrogant vision of herself as the mother of the new humanity. Sarai, Ham’s wife, witters on about recommending her best friend, Zillah, as a wife for the youngest son, Japheth, in the days before the rains come. Zillah, once aboard, grieves for her lost family and bemoans her kidnapping by Noah’s sons to become a forced bride and breeding mare.

It does not flinch from the brutality of the genocide no from the feelings of those whose lives are doomed. Some will object that it is not suitable for children but what about the gruesomeness in the brothers Grimm?

Its grand design seems to be to question patriarchal values and fundamentalist attitudes by revealing the underbelly of human experi ence, located especially in the women. Here, the God of the Old Testament is harsh. Timna must escape this world view and the men who hold sway over her in order to flourish in a more humanistic, compassionate tradition, and to offer the reader hope for the future.

And yet what world is this? Noah and his family are described as practising Jewish law (there are references, for instance, to circumcision and the prohibition of the making of images. Yet, according to biblical chronology, Noah comes long before the commandments (and Abraham, later in the book of Genesis, is the first to be circumcised). So while claiming to be “real” the tale avoids being firmly rooted in any contextual reality and its own source material. It is also too aligned to the specific story of Noah to get away with passing for a free-wheeling flight of imagination. The impulse to unravel a well-rehearsed legend is inspiring. In weaving the threads together afresh various loose ends still need to be connected.

If there’s a Noah’s Ark sailing around the world today, I dare suggest that it’s the Church. Like McCaughrean’s Ark, it’s full of leaks, it’s tossed about in the storms, and some people on board are so obsessed with their own righteousness and purity that they’ll push other survivors away to drown. It has stowaways on board, people hiding them, terrified they’ll be discovered and thrown overboard. But it also has others on board who won’t stand by and watch this happen, who are throwing out lifelines to the drowning. It’s not the end of the world — and if you’re on board this ship, you can’t afford to ignore this story. (And are the other ships, towards which they are hostile, other denominations?)

And don’t believe somebody who claims to know ‘God’s plan.’ Or who sees ‘demons’ in  people who are different.

nteotw-2 Quotations:

`Shem, Ham, and Japheth: sons of Noah.’ They are the only ones who will be mentioned a hundred years from now when people tell our story. I know I won’t figure”

“The water boiled with people. They were swimming, or clutching hold of logs, doors, cartwheels. Animals, too, were swimming among them–dogs and horses, cattle, goats. The sky was full of displaced birds, circling, circling, with nowhere to land”

“Below us, in the bowels of the ship, along its entire length, beasts squealed and shrieked and keened, scrabbling with claws and talons and tails for some purchase on the rolling world . . . . Huge mounds of hot dung slid about the decking, dislodging small creatures in their path”

The end of the world is a busy time if you mean to outlive it.

“Get off! Get off! Leave Go! Its too late, I told you! It’s your own fault!”
(And whilst this is going on, Noah) “Sat looking into the distance, his lips moving in prayerful devotion, completely given over to thanksgiving”

“And if survival is down to merit there must be better than us. Seeing the way we behaved to our fellow men. You were quite right Timna, there must be others. There are too many flaws in God’s plan unless there are”

“It was as if someone had extinguished it, so as to deal out judgment in the dark… or to conceal a getaway.”

‘I am saying,’ says mother cautiously, ‘that one man’s head is a very small place to try and fit the whole of God’s intentions. Some of them may . . . get mislaid.

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