Friday 15 December 2017

Review: Pearl by Deirdre Purcell

Hachette Ireland, €24.40, Hardback

It has been a few years since Deirdre Purcell's last foray into the world of fiction, and Irish bookshelves now groan louder than ever under the weight of homegrown novels catering to the female market.

Chick-lit flourished in tandem with the economy, as women writers tapped into the narrative of the Celtic Tigress, but the genre remains on sturdy footing, even as the conditions that created it crumble.

However, Purcell exists outside of this crowded market and has always managed to deftly tread the line between good old-fashioned romance and more modern-day concerns, her writing confidently moving towards the literary.

Indeed, her 2009 shortlisting for the Orange Prize, as well as the phenomenal success of her 1998 bestseller Falling for a Dancer, is testament to this. The novel was picked up by RTE and made into a flagship four-part drama for its autumn schedule that year.

In this, her twelfth novel, the former journalist and actress has created a sweeping love story that takes the reader from the War of Independence and big-house politics to an Ireland of the 1970s that is in a state of flux.

Sisters Pearl, Opal and Ruby Somers, whose father is employed by Lord and Lady Areton as a chauffeur, live in the gate lodge of Kilnashone House. One night in April 1923 the lives of the Somers family, as well as their aristocrat employers, are changed forever by a series of tragic and dramatic events.

More than 40 years later, the two surviving sisters share a house together in the seaside suburb of Sandymount. Pearl has fulfilled her dream of becoming a published writer after years spent working in a cafe on the quays. Opal, now widowed, married into the wealth to which she had always aspired. And now a frequent visitor to the sisters' home is Catherine, their young cousin who has been brought up by her now elderly great-grandparents.

Through the voices of the three women, from different generations, speaking as children, young women and old women, the reader is guided through the vast landscape of Purcell's novel.

A fleeting but doomed love affair has haunted Pearl since that tragic day in 1923, and after almost half a century, Catherine tries and brings some closure to the affair that has endured all that time.

The seeds of the story came from Purcell's own family history: her maternal grandparents lived in the gate lodge of Durrow Castle, her grandfather was a chauffeur for the Flower family who, like Pearl and Opal's father, ended up leaving for a time to work for the family when they returned to England. And like Pearl and Opal, Purcell's mother and aunt came to Dublin at young girls to work in a city-centre cafe, forging out a life in the capital.

The most impressive and indeed engaging element of Pearl is the three distinct narrative voices Purcell has created. Whether we are listening to Catherine describing with wide-eyed excitement her sudden immersion into 1970s American college life after arriving for a summer in Chicago, or following a 15-year-old Pearl as she sneaks into the big house to catch a glimpse of the aristocracy in their finery for the annual ball, these women convince and absorb.

For some, the ending may fall a little short, but the way Purcell builds up to her final chapters, expertly parting with nuggets of past revelations en route, more than makes up for any flaws. Fans of Purcell are bound to welcome Pearl into their lives like an old friend, and will enjoy catching up.

Irish Independent

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