It imaginatively retells the biblical story of Noah's Ark through the eyes of a young girl Re Jana. At her crippled mother's instigation (she has had enough of constantly moving higher to avoid the rising waters), Re Jana and her family travel from the marshes to the desert where they have heard there is a huge ship being built. Their journey is perilous, but what confronts them on arrival is even more so. People crawl over the monolithic ship, animals mill around and all workers hope for a place on the ark. These are a people very different from the marsh people. Re Jana's father, while not convinced of the enterprise, quickly becomes Noah's adviser because he is an expert shipbuilder. Re Jana works by washing people with clean water and her collection of fragrant oils. Through this she begins a relationship with Noah's youngest son Ham and learns the purpose of the ship. Only Noah's family and the animals will escape the flood; everyone else will perish. Despite being promised to someone else when the flood does come, Ham smuggles Re Jana onto the Ark.
Re Jana's trials on the Ark, the adventures of her father in his little papyrus boat, and the family's eventual arrival to create a new world make for gripping reading.
The uncertainty amongst the people - Will the flood really come? If yes, when? Will the ship be ready? Will they all get a place? - creates a sense of tension in the story. I always imagined the procession onto the Ark as a much more orderly affair, but Provoost has created a very vivid picture of chaos, panic, turbulence and cruelty. Bitter rivalries and fierce jealousies amongst the people, particularly amongst Noah's family reinforce the exploration of good and evil in human dealings. It is the intrigues between the characters which most fascinate and give insights into the good and bad aspects of human nature. In the Shadow of the Ark is a compelling read and one which gives much food for thought.
While the language is very economical, the imagery it creates is not and the interactions between the characters may shock some. For this reason, and for the complexity of the ideas, I think it is most suited to mature students in upper high school or even the staff. The cover describes it as a love story. So it is, but it is much more than that: suspense, adventure, an exploration of good and evil and of the belief of people in their particular God. The characters, especially Re Jana, are wonderfully drawn. It is easy to identify with her, to feel that we are there amidst the mayhem and perhaps reflect on which of the characters we would be - fascinating and emotionally challenging stuff.