The opening paragraphs of The Sinking of Noah's Ark stunned me with their eloquence - until I realised the author was quoting from a speech by Nelson Mandela. Still, not to worry - the selection of such suitable words inclined me in favour of the book before I'd even started. Some might dismiss Mandela's exhortation to "make manifest the glory of God that is within us" as trite or glib; I take them at face value, and I anticipated that this was going to be an uplifting story. In that respect, I wasn't disappointed.
Once I got going, I found plenty of sentences and whole paragraphs worthy of a Mandela speech. In a way, this was refreshing. Too often, those who can write well are tempted to shy away from expressing themselves conventionally, turning to strings of gritty metaphor as a way of emphasising their independent spirit. Here, however, the characterisation of Noah King is achieved more effectively through his occasional first-person musings than the rather dry narrative of his early life, the latter being enlivened only by the shocking account of the death of Noah's younger brother, an event for which he proceeds to blame himself.
The written style is simple, at times lapsing into cliché. The more demanding reader will find it unchallenging, but I felt it was worth persevering. Noah is, after all, a simple soul, brought up in simple surroundings by simple parents. It's only when he arrives in college to be greeted by his smelly new room-mate that he becomes fully aware of the big bad world - a world from which he immediately seeks to cut himself off. TrysDan Roberts' observations, as she follows her hero through his everyday activities, are insightful; it is only the expression of them that seems to lack inspiration:
"His desk was cluttered with papers. Noah was not sure how he managed to get through each day."
This is in contrast with the moments when she enables us to enter Noah's thoughts, immature as they may be, and get a real feel for what is going on inside.
"The terror in her voice wielded him backward in time to a place that forever haunted him, Aidan's demise."
I feel duty-bound to warn potential readers that there is a hidden agenda. It soon becomes apparent that this is the work of a person with strong religious beliefs, beliefs which she feels compelled to pass on to her readers. In a writer seeking commercial success, this would be a serious flaw. However, writers whose aim is to impart spiritual understanding to their audience rarely worry about such things as royalties.
Noah, despite being an outspoken atheist, expects to go to heaven when he dies. Finding himself, after a road accident, in a mysterious courtroom, he prepares to meet his Maker. But if you're expecting a replay of A Matter of Life and Death, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what follows. Suffice it to say that the unearthly jury includes Steve Biko, Albert Einstein and Sitting Bull.
The arguments Noah puts forward in support of God's essential goodness are interesting to the average human, though it's difficult to understand why the heavenly prosecutor, who has presumably gone through this process a million times before, finds them so original and alarming. The author clearly has a scientific background, and displays her knowledge admirably. She goes further, bringing in not only anthropology and genetics, but theology, economics, history and literature, with one or two little question marks over accuracy. (That "famous line from The Sound and the Fury" was written by Shakespeare.) Considerable thought and research has gone into the making of this story. After a while, however, it all starts to sound a bit like preaching - worse still, it is preaching to the converted.
TrysDan Roberts' error lies, firstly, in believing that the arguments she personally finds convincing will appeal, or even be comprehensible, to those coming at the problem from a different point of view, and, secondly, in thinking that a novel is an appropriate place in which to present them. This might have made a great piece of theatre (and of course it still could be). As a book, it has little hope of holding the attention of anyone who doesn't already have some sympathy for the author's basic premise.