A misshapen pearl is still beautiful
Author Jeff Talarigo pulls off a pretty impressive feat with his first novel, “The Pearl Diver”. He has managed to tell a story of Japan in English that has the feel of a Japanese novel. The understated style, the simple prose, the melancholy tone, are all aspects of Japanese literature that I love, and are the hardest part of Western writers to emulate. Its Western/Eastern mix feels a lot like a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, specifically Never Let Me Go.
The title and cover are a little misleading. The naked woman sitting on the boat never appears in the novel, and the actual pearl diving takes up very little of the story. This is the story of a disease, leprosy, and how it affected the lives of those unfortunates who carried it. Taking place over the course of several decades from early post-war to the 1980s, “The Pearl Diver” is far from a sweeping epic. However, it is an intimate story of a young woman who becomes an old woman, all within the tiny confines of a small island where sufferers of leprosy were isolated.
“The Pearl Diver” is a historical fiction novel, and none of the characters or artifacts are real. Some things, such as the setting of Nagashima Leprosarium, are real however, and lend an air of authenticity to the story.
One of the things I loved most about this book was the realism. Characters were not artificially thrust into major world events, and in fact remained almost ignorant of the outside world. Their island not only provided safety from the infectious disease for the rest of Japan, but was also a safe haven for those whom society judged as shameful and cursed. Juxtaposed with artifacts recovered from an abandoned facility, these are the lives and deaths of the afflicted and scorned, who sought to scratch out what happiness they could.
Japan has had a long, sad history with leprosy. The laws portrayed in this novel were only repealed in 1996, and Prime Minister Koizumi didn’t offer an official government apology until 2001. Whereas most countries abandoned leper laws and quarantine when cures and prevention methods became common place in the 1940s, Japan continued its unnecessary policies including isolation and eugenics such as forced abortions and sterilizations.