On the surface of it, there's not much to David Maine's novel THE PRESERVATIONIST. After all, most of us probably knew the plot already, right? The animals came two by two, it rained for forty days and forty nights, and there was a rainbow at the end. What else can be said about the oft-told Old Testament tale of Noah's Ark?
A whole lot, as it turns out. From the well-known Biblical story, Maine constructs a fully realized novel that not only explores issues of faith, doubt and devotion that arise from the Biblical text itself but also fully examines the effects of crisis on individuals and families.
Since the novel's basic story is already familiar to so many readers, much of the book's richness arrives from the way the story is told, through the voices of its many exquisitely drawn characters. There's Noe, of course --- Maine utilizes the spelling of names from the 1609 Duoay Bible. Zealous, stubborn, sometimes barely in control of his mental faculties, the aged man is alternately pitied and feared by his family. Noe's wife also narrates several chapters, and the narrative plays with the fact that the woman is usually nameless in most traditional retellings of the story. Noe's three sons also play key roles, each with his own part to play not only in the construction of the ark but also in the telling of the tale.
Surprisingly enough, the heart of Maine's novel lies with Noe's daughters-in-law, who barely receive a mention in most retellings. These women --- strong, industrious and ingenious --- not only take responsibility for collecting the animal species, but also hold the family together through adversity and ensure the perpetuation of the species. Each of these women is an individual, from the fiercely independent northerner Ilya to the powerful but vulnerable African Bera to the childlike but surprisingly insightful Mirn.
For ages, people have had a hard time reconciling how Noah's story could contain literal truths. Maine cleverly, sometimes irreverently, addresses many of the criticisms of the story's plausibility. Despite its playfulness, though, the novel possesses a deep respect not only for the Biblical story but also for the faith that underlies it. As Bera narrates, just when the future seems bleakest for the small band of travelers adrift on an endless sea, "Hope swamps my throat…I hope the waters will fall back and the plants will somehow, impossibly, sprout green in springtime and life will go on as it did before. Except perhaps with less sin, and more approval from God."
Hope, faith and love are the real truths at the center of the Noah's Ark story, and THE PRESERVATIONIST gets right to the heart of those truths.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 29, 2013