Whatever floats your boat

Jan Mark

Jan Mark contemplates two different takes on a biblical classic

In the Shadow of the Ark

By Anne Provoost

Simon amp; Schuster pound;12.99

Not the End of the World

By Geraldine McCaughrean Oxford University Press pound;4.99 You wait six millennia for an Ark and then three come along at once. David Maine's The Flood will be shortly published for adults by Canongate. The two Ark novels reviewed here are intended for young adults, whatever that means; it is becoming harder and harder to tell. Old adults will not be wasting their time with either.

Archaeology suggests that flood legends derive from devastating but localised disasters. Geraldine McCaughrean and Anne Provoost go by the Book; this is the Flood, all the waters on the Earth and under it, sent by God to wipe out the whole of creation with the exception of one righteous man and his family, along with breeding pairs of all beasts.

Provoost's is an outsider's view. Re Jana, her father and her paralysed mother flee rising water levels and trek inland from their home in the marshes to a place where a landlocked vessel is being constructed, not only by Noach and his sons but an entire shipyard. The workers do not necessarily believe a flood is coming but assume that if it does, they will have earned sanctuary on the Ark.

Re Jana's involvement with Noach's family, through her relationship with Ham, gives her a unique insight into the ruthlessness of their enterprise.

The implacable demands of the nameless deity are allowed to override the family's own humanity. If they allow even one of the unrighteous to travel with them, the divine plan will be doomed and thus they absolve themselves of the need to examine their consciences or to question the nature of righteousness.

The book is long, digressive, gradually combining a picture or a society on the brink of destruction with the inexorable acceleration of the forces that will destroy it.

The central figure of Not the End of the World is also a young woman, Timna, Noah's daughter. McCaughrean's family are no less literal than Provoost's in their interpretation of God's will. As they have been instructed to take their sons' wives, they abduct a neighbourhood girl for the still-unwed Japheth and refuse to compromise their righteousness by accommodating strangers. They repel offers of assistance from another family who have built their own boat, convincing themselves that these must be demons sent to tempt them.

But they are simpler souls than Provoost's self-deceiving sophists. Timna and Japheth save a child and a baby from the waters and hide them on board.

While Noah and the elder sons pursue their hideous destiny with enthusiasm, Japheth and the women see an alternative route to salvation.

Both novels deal frankly with the logistics and the vile realities of life in a floating prison in the company of many thousands of animals, and both introduce the paradox of a fire on board in the midst of endless water, but the authorial voices are quite distinct and each has created a unique story out of the common source.

McCaughrean's is the more accessible, and succinct book, but both are finely written, hugely challenging and rewarding, although the translation of the Provoost throws up occasional infelicities - did anything have a flip-side before the invention of the jukebox?

And both leave the reader with the same dilemma to ponder: even if God is the ultimate authority, is it ever excusable to plead that you were only obeying orders?

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Jan Mark

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