October 24, 2009

Tragedy of Leprosy and Human Scorn Unraveled in Beautifully Told Story: The Pearl Diver review

Tragedy of Leprosy and Human Scorn Unraveled in Beautifully Told Story
The Pearl Diver

"The Pearl Diver" is a difficult book. Leprosy is not part of most our lives, and much of what we think of may involve Jesus Christ's healing of the 10 lepers in the Gospel of Luke. The book is not about leprosy, but it is the context which drives the story. It is about being confined in flesh, the ever present and ubiquitous human condition.

Imagine a young woman diving with great skill to the ocean floor. The grace, beauty and athleticism just off the shore of a Japanese island alone is an image to carry a reader through each page. Author Jeff Talarigo finds the proper tone and pace so as to begin the story well. A diagnosis of leprosy changes this scene, and the woman quickly moves to a leper colony. Her family cannot handle the shame and disowns her.

Giving context to the story are 'Artifacts', something Talarigo uses as object/symbols. The technique works like a subtitle within a chapter like as with "Artifact Number 0596: A bar of soap." The soap represents cleanliness and purity. Miss Fuji, as the young woman is called at the colony, carves them into shells or fish, and in them briefly finds freedom.

The tone of the book is beautifully dour. It never ebbs and flows like the waves of the ocean dove into, creating emotional exhaustion for readers who want to leave the book uplifted. But leprosy in the 1940s is not a happy disease. The disease itself is hard, as is the social outcasting that packaged with it.

It occasionally leaves a contemplative place and falls into sentimentality, and arcs into cynicism as Miss Fuji reacts against one patient who describes her faith to her. The most tragic portion is when Miss Fuji falls into intolerance, and "wants to rip their skin apart," whenever someone religious talks about what they believe. At once she claims it is OK for some, yet is enraged when patients discuss their beliefs openly.

The world continues on without her, and it will continue when she's gone. She understands this, but isn't satisfied and pursues freedom.

Excellently written, if a bit monotonic, "The Pearl Diver" is more than moralism wrapped in an exotic context. It looks for, and arrives at deliverance.

--Brockeim


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