Exploring a different grief | Review of Booker Prize-longlisted ‘Pearl’ by Sian Hughes

In Hughes’ debut novel about motherhood, there is as much wisdom as there is abrasion

Updated - September 23, 2023 04:03 pm IST

Published - September 20, 2023 10:08 pm IST

The narrator in the novel has lost her mother, Margaret, a name that means pearl.

The narrator in the novel has lost her mother, Margaret, a name that means pearl. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Pearl, I discovered in the first few pages of Siân Hughes’ eponymous novel, is the title of an anonymous Middle English poem, written around the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and possibly by the same hand that crafted ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. I went to Project Gutenberg and read the poem. And although a poem is not about anything — yes, Billy Collins, we know — one might be forgiven for saying that a narrative poem may even be about a man who has lost a loved one, a pearl; he falls asleep in a green space (much like Alice in Wonderland, another text which surfaces here) and wakes up to meet a radiant presence who offers consolation for his bereavement in the form of Christian spiritual teaching.

The narrator in Hughes’ novel has lost her mother, Margaret, a name that means pearl. One day, Marianne’s mother is there, the next she is not. She has vanished. No body is found. No rumours of sightings in other cities. The family must now live around and with and through this absence.

But since this is a contemporary novel about motherhood, let us, for a moment, focus on the costs of that state. I have always maintained that a child is an individual, an object and an event designed with the fell purpose of making its parents second-class citizens in their own lives. But the design is so perfect that the parents voluntarily give up first-class citizenship.

In the poem ‘To My Mother’, Arundhathi Subramaniam talks about how a parent must give up ‘the option to despair’. Marianne’s mother takes that option and it is as if she starts a fire that will leave the entire family singed and breathing harshly.

Layered metaphors

Edward, the husband, soldiers on with a baby on his hands, a baby who develops allergies, and an elder daughter, Marianne, whose acting out is the substance of the first half of this book. If you do not sympathise with the pain of not having a mother, Marianne turns into a bit of a pest. She skips school and must be tutored; then she resists tutoring. She is an unreliable elder sister who runs off to visit a gypsy camp, even on a day when she has been specifically asked to make herself available for babysitting duties. She cuts herself, she starves herself, she lets her older girlfriend shave her bald, she wreaks havoc on her body, driven by the twin demons of grief and rage.

Author Sian Hughes.

Author Sian Hughes. | Photo Credit: thebookerprizes.com

What is exquisitely delineated is the way one vanishing brings economic ruin in its wake. Marianne’s parents wanted their children to live in the country but with the departure of the mother, this is no longer economically feasible. The family moves into a house it hates and then, in a layered metaphor, Marianne lays waste to her past, even as another secret is revealed to her. 

Adulthood brings art and agency; and soon enough a pregnancy. Ignore the sperm-donor. Hughes gets him out of there in less than 10 pages. There is as much wisdom in this latter half as there is abrasion in the first.

Marianne admits: “I thought my child would heal my broken heart” and she sees that she must refuse the “Exit Sign” of suicide for Susannah’s sake. She must stay at least until the child is 18. But then, “…I noticed that I missed my mother more than ever when I had a child of my own, and had to rethink. Perhaps Susannah might prefer me to be around when she has a child? Perhaps there would still be work to do.”

There always is. Internal work. External work. Work for pay as an art therapist. In an essay, Pulitzer-winning American author Barbara Kingsolver wrote: “Write a non-fiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts. But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

I found myself assuming this was Hughes’ life. It has the ungainly malformed shapes of truth.

Siân Hughes
Picador India

The reviewer’s last novel, ‘The Education of Yuri’, bears only a passing resemblance to his life.

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