The 2023 Booker Prize judges called Pearl “an exceptional debut novel… both a mystery story and a meditation on grief… at once quiet and hugely ambitious”. I might never have come across it, but it was long-listed this year and the wonderful folks at UQP sent me a copy for review.
And I must admit, I went in making some assumptions that were way off base. With that title – Pearl – and the blurb referencing a young girl and her mother, I assumed it was some kind of adaptation or allusion to The Scarlet Letter. If you’re assuming the same, let me disabuse you of that right now and save you a bit of confusion!
Marianne was eight years old when her mother walked out the kitchen door, and disappeared without a trace. She left, in her wake, a million unanswered questions and a collection of poetry, containing the medieval verse Pearl (where the book gets its title). The poem doesn’t play quite as big a role in the overall story as the blurb would have you believe, but it’s still a touchstone throughout.
Pearl is a short novel that packs an emotional punch (heads up for self-harm, disordered eating, post-partum depression/psychosis, and a dog death that sad but mercifully brief). The patterns of Marianne’s life are shaped by her mother, even in absentia. With the absence of any new evidence as to her ultimate whereabouts, Marianne still comes to new levels of insight into her mother’s state of mind when she left the house that day, which brings the story to its climax.
Pearl left me feeling strangely unmoored, like I was walking through fog for a while after I turned the final page. I’m glad it will get its moment in the spotlight along with the other long-listed Booker titles this year, as this quiet English novel might’ve passed by many of us otherwise.
Buy Pearl on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)