Marianne's grief at her mother's loss is forever trapped in her eight-year-old mind. It's a grief that cast its ominous shadow over her life, over her relationships, over her career, over everything. By Arrangement
When I came to know that Pearl written by Sian Hughes was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, my expectations from the book shot up. Luckily for me, the book lived up to it, most of the time. Told in first person narrative, it’s the story of Marianne. When Marianne was eight years old, living in a house on the edge of a small village, her mother Margaret goes missing, leaving behind Marianne, her baby brother Jonathan (Joe) and her father Edward. The police search the area for clues but fail to find anything or come to any conclusion. They question the family. They question the part-time nanny. They search the house for a letter. But they meet with failure. Margaret’s disappearance is a big mystery.
The story is told in flashback. Marianne, now an adult, is constantly besieged by thoughts of her mother, the stories she narrated, the songs she sang, the food she cooked, the games she played with her, run in her mind in a constant loop of tormenting memories. One expected the father-daughter duo to bond due to sharing a common grief, but Marianne shows no feelings of tenderness towards either her father or her baby brother. In fact, she suspects her father of hiding things from her.
Home-schooled by her mother, Marianne is sent to school after her mother’s disappearance, she is unable to adjust to school or forge a bond with her classmates. She often bunks school, nothing interests this girl who feels awkward and self-conscious most of the time. She sets herself on a path of destruction, has an affair with an older girl named Emily, a constant relationship with drugs and lives her life on the edge of rebellion. This follows her even in adulthood where a series of affairs and one-night stands fail to help her find the relationship bliss her heart craves.
She finds solace in art, making visual representation of a medieval poem called ‘Pearl’. It’s a task she never manages to complete to her satisfaction. But it leads to her meeting a fellow artist Barney. She has a brief affair with him, it culminates in a pregnancy and her daughter Susannah is born out of wedlock. Can motherhood tame her wild spirit? To a certain extent it does.
Hughes uses a late 14th century Middle English poem ‘Perle’ (Pearl) as the theme for her book. The nameless poet, referred to as Pearl, had also written ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’; these poems form a big part of Marianne’s memories of her mother. The original poem talks of a father mourning for his lost daughter. In this book, the role is reversed, a daughter mourns the loss of her mother.
Marianne’s grief at her mother’s loss is forever trapped in her eight-year-old mind. It’s a grief that cast its ominous shadow over her life, over her relationships, over her career, over everything. Actually, this grief is like an eclipse that darkens everything; it holds her back from her true potential. Lack of a mother’s presence in her life makes her adrift; there is no one to anchor her to home and hearth.
One can never recover from the loss of a loved one, more so if it’s in the formative years of one’s life. Marianne carries this loss, this grief like an open wound, constantly festering and causing her mental anguish which in turn is leading her down a path of self-destruction. There are so many unanswered questions in the girl’s mind. Did her mother abandon her family? Did she run away with another man? Did she commit suicide induced by a post-partum depression? Was she unhappy? These questions haunt her like an evil ghost.
Hughes has written a heart-tugging story, but many times through the story I doubted Marianne’s sanity. Was she suffering from depression? Was she suicidal? Though I felt sorry for the young girl, at times I also wanted to shake her and knock some sense into her head, so that she gets back on the right track. Marianne’s mother’s memories and her own loss feature so often in the book, that at times it felt repetitive. This was my biggest grouse in the story.
Yet, Pearl is a tender portrayal of loss and longing, of a daughter yearning for her mother, written in a poignant style. The ending made the journey of reading the book worthwhile.
Rachna Chhabria is a Bengaluru based children’s author and a freelance writer
By Sian Hughes