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Booker Prize 2023: Pearl by Siân Hughes

For some reason I expected not to enjoy this novel. Based on some blurb or review, I’d saved it in a similar category to Study for Obedience, which I found pretty tedious. So I was positively surprised when I noticed I was actually quite fond of this tender little novel. It took a moment for me to get to that point. Not because the beginnig is bad, it’s just so subtle and quiet, you need a moment to realise the extent of its depth.

In the 14th century an unidentified poet composed a text containing for poems, today Gawain and the Green Knight is most famous among these four, but it was another one, Pearl, that has inspired Siân Hughes debut novel of the same title. Just as its centuries-old predecessor (and a few other Booker longlisted titles), Hugh’s novel is about love, loss, grief, and hope.

Inspired by her own experience of motherhood, our narrator Marianne recalls the death of her own mother and explores how her grief has ruled much of her life ever since she was eight years old and her mother walked out the door, never to return. Looking back, she realises the extent to which she has been unable to move on from her unresolved loss, forever wondering what has happened to her mother and what drove her out the doors that day, leaving not just her daughter, but also her newborn son behind in their crumbling house. Supported by her equally overwhelmed father, Marianne struggles through as kinds of challenges that life can throw at a young girl while trying to find peace until, very slowly, she starts to find acceptance and new hope.

Pearl is short and intense, over before you realise it and yet it lingers for a while. The images Hughes paints of Marianne’s childhood and the England she grows up in are just as vivid and vibrant as the books cover. Even though she creates distance from the described emotions by letting her protagonist recount, rather than experience them, the story is moving and there were moments towards the end of the book that had me tear up a little. Taking the drama out of the events and constructing as somewhat circular narrative with repetitive elements, enhances the persistence of grief, that can almost become mundane in its omnipresence.

Heavily influenced not only by the 14th century poem, but also by English folk stories and nursery rhymes, Pearl feels lyrical without, yet homely, somehow new and familiar at the same time. It might not be a perfect novel, but Siân Hughes has composed an astonishing debut that will hopefully mark the beginning of a long career.

Published by Indigo Press, 2023

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