Sunday 26 March 2017

Review: Pearl by Deirdre Purcell

Hachette, €13.99

After a hiatus of five years since her last novel, Deirdre Purcell, the former journalist and actress, is back in top form delivering her 12th novel simply entitled Pearl.

She draws inspiration from her own family history to create a grand love story spanning more than 40 years and, at the same time, chronicles a large tranche of Irish history from the early Twenties during the War of Independence to an ever-changing Ireland of the Seventies with a summer stop-over in Chicago en route adding a kaleidoscope of colour, culture and catastrophe to the unfolding saga.

Set in the midlands of rural Ireland, the story is a microcosm of the intrinsically unjust Anglo-Irish big house presence and its attendant so-called peasant class in this woebegone era of Irish history: specifically, the inhabitants of Kilnashone Castle (the Aretons) and the occupants of the gate lodge (the Somers family) encompass this dual master-servant demographic to a tee.

Early in the novel, we get a vivid picture of the Castle grounds that captures the essential disparity between the two families. "Strictly speaking, the Castle was not a real castle: in size and importance it was minor in comparison with some of the other great Irish houses, but with its elevated position commanding a 360-degree view of the rolling countryside, crenellated walls, stable yards and broad entrance avenue sweeping uphill between two rows of chestnut trees, it was grand enough to impress us." Contrast this with the Somers' home, a "two-storey gate lodge adjoining the massive gates" which boasted the additions of "a lean-to scullery and an outside privy".

The lives of the Somers family revolved almost completely around Kilnashone

Castle. The father of the family, James, "a foundling", was employed by Lord and Lady Areton as a loyal chauffeur. A perk of the job, one of the few it would appear, was the grace-and-favour privilege of living in the cramped, dingy gate-lodge. His children, Pearl, Opal, Ruby and Willie led an almost idyllic life indulging in the innocent pursuits of children, namely, walking in Drynan Wood and playing games down by the river adjoining the Castle while the mother, June, kept house and re-modelled the hand-me-downs received courtesy of Lady Areton. All was well as long as everyone knew their place in the pecking order. "Ours not to question our betters. Ours to be grateful for a nice home and a good living."

Daily life appeared to be going along spiffingly from the Aretons' perspective, if outward appearances were to be believed, till "that terrible haunting night in April 1923" amidst 70th birthday party celebrations when a series of tumultuous, tragic events occurred, impinging with far-reaching consequences on the lives of both the Somers and Areton families.

More than 40 years later, we enter the second phase of the novel and the cast of characters narrows, comprising the two surviving Somers sisters, Pearl and Opal, who reside together in a luxurious house in the posh coastal suburb of Sandymount on Dublin's southside, and the regular visitor to their home, 19-year-old cousin Catherine Fay, an arts student in UCD who has become quite close to the two elderly sisters.

After spending years, enduring more menial careers in cafes, hotels and the retail trade, both sisters have succeeded in achieving their long-held ambitions. Pearl, who has "hidden depths", has become a respected, published writer under the pseudonym Dorothy Morris, but has built "a sort of exclusion zone around her" regarding would-be suitors. Opal, meanwhile, is a wealthy widow. Her husband Frank left her well provided for, ensuring that she wouldn't have to skivvy like her mother, and so Opal is now "someone who just keeps going".

Our heroine, as the title suggests, is Pearl, a spinster who has been haunted by a brief but torrid love affair since her teen years back in Kilnashone. She is a deeply private person who takes refuge in her writing, and it remains for someone to unlock the love affair and end the pining. That someone is close at hand. Catherine, having gained some first-hand, dreadful experience in the romance stakes in the US, has her love antennae razor sharp and the intrepid cupid tackles Pearl's affair with gusto, bringing surprising success.

This story was triggered by Purcell's own family situation in that her maternal grandparents lived in the gate lodge of Durrow Castle and her grandfather was chauffeur to the owners of the castle, the Flower family. These close parallels with her own life give the story edge and credibility.

Pearl is essentially a good old-fashioned love story that takes the old cliché "the path of true love never runs smooth" to the extreme. Yet it is more than a cosy, romantic read for such is the palpable sense of time and place, namely the social milieu of Ireland in the Twenties. The Aretons of Kilnashone represent the swan song of the "big house" within rural Ireland set starkly against a backdrop of civil war, burnings, reprisals and counter-reprisals. This reader found it impossible to read Purcell's story in a detached manner without seething with anger at both the inherent injustice of the system and the inequities inflicted on Irish people of living with serfdom as their raison d'etre at the hands of arrogant aristocrats who demanded "unswerving allegiance" and an attitude of grovelling obsequiousness. Purcell builds up the tension in the novel with a steady hand through the exquisite steerage of her well-drawn characters and brings about a novel, satisfying end.

A warm, poignant and, at times exasperating tragic tale that is in essence a jewel of a story.

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