With the same atmosphere and imagination of THE BOOK OF HIDDEN WONDERS, Polly Crosby’s new novel, THE WOMEN OF PEARL ISLAND, is set on a lush, secluded island where family secrets bring together an unlikely friendship.
On a secluded island off the British coast, an elderly woman named Marianne collects butterflies and memories from her past. No longer able to catch butterflies herself, she enlists the help of a young woman named Tartelin who has a peculiar birthmark on her cheek. Tartelin’s mother has recently passed, leaving her unmoored and eager for new beginnings on the island.
Marianne has spent most of her life on the island, her family having owned it for generations. She begins to tell her young assistant her family’s story – from the prosperous days when they harvested pearls and held banquets, to the harder times and her father’s desperate money-making schemes. But during WWII, the British government commandeered the island for nuclear testing and they were all forced to leave. Though, secret to everyone, Marianne stayed behind and experienced something she calls “the blast,” an event that changed everything for her. Now, the older woman is obsessed with tracking the changes in butterflies and other creatures on the island to prove what she witnessed so many decades before.
With a mystery spanning decades, this is an emotional and atmospheric story of a young woman coming into her own as she forges an unlikely friendship with her employer, both women grieving their pasts and together, embracing a new future.
The Women of Pearl Island is almost, but not quite, creepy. Tartelin, grieving the death of her mother, accepts a position as a personal assistant to an elderly woman who lives on the remote island of Dohhalund. The island has been in Marianne Stourbridge’s family for years. Marianne grew up there, with her father profiting from the herring trade, from the pearls farmed from Dohhalund oysters, from the silkworms that Marianne learned to cultivate. But all was not sunshine and roses during Marianne’s childhood.
Marianne has hired Tartelin to be her eyes, ears, and legs on the island as she seeks proof of…something, something that happened during World War II, when all of Marianne’s family was forced by the government to leave the island. She’s very secretive about the events of her life, and Tartelin at first isn’t sure she can handle the position she’s accepted. Marianne expects her to trap butterflies for examination. The island is completely isolated – no cell service, no phone, no electricity. And she will tell Tartelin virtually nothing about what exactly she hopes to prove with her examination of so many creatures.
But as Tartelin explores her surroundings, both Dogger Bank House where she stays with Marianne and the island itself, the more she becomes engaged in it. She slowly learns to appreciate the solitude. She meets a handful of people living on the island, and in some instances this results in more questions, more secrets from the past coming to light. And as Marianne slowly, slowly opens up to Tartelin, Tartelin finds her own kind of healing and restoration.
This story is told in dual timelines, the present day and Marianne’s growing-up years leading up to World War II. I found it easy to follow the two separate storylines. The prose is lush, sometimes bordering on fantastical, and this gives the book almost a dreamlike quality. Sometimes it’s hard to separate reality from imagination. It’s a slow-moving book, but it really pulled me in to Tartelin and Marianne’s stories. I wanted to know where they were both coming from, and what was driving Marianne to stay in a house that could literally crumble into the sea.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t going to be your cup of tea. But if you want a story that builds and that reveals its secrets in time, with characters you may alternately want to hug and shake, The Women of Pearl Island may be for you. I can honestly say it is like no other book I’ve read this year, and it was a literary treat for me.
Polly Crosby grew up on the Suffolk coast, and now lives deep in the Norfolk countryside. THE BOOK OF HIDDEN WONDERS was awarded runner up in the Bridport Prize’s Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a First Novel, and Polly also won Curtis Brown Creative’s Yesterday Scholarship, which enabled her to finish the novel. She currently holds the Annabel Abbs Scholarship at the University of East Anglia, where she is studying part time for an MA in Creative Writing. THE WOMEN OF PEARL ISLAND is her second novel.