Mary Gordon has published five novels, a book of novellas, a collection of short stories, a memoir, two books of essays, and a biography of Joan of Arc. She is a recipient of the Lila Acheson Wallace Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a 1997 O. Henry Prize for best short story. Her latest novel, “Pearl,” may delve into similar issues as her other works: religion, motherhood, feminism, yet it is unlike anything I have read before.
Immediately the reader learns of the crisis at the center of the book: Maria, a feminist single mother, receives a call from the state department informing her that her daughter has chained herself to the flag pole outside the American Embassy in Dublin. She hasn’t eaten for six weeks and her death has been planned to coincide with the celebration of the birth of Christ. We feel Maria’s initial shock and helplessness as she makes plans to fly to Ireland.
What makes this novel so unique is Gordon’s use of a sort of benign, cerebral narrator to tie the threads of three lives together and to clue the reader into all the nuances that led Pearl, Maria’s daughter, to commit such a desperate, deliberate act of sacrifice. The reader is thrust into the action and then through skillful, yet sometimes painfully slow narration, the reader learns the why of it.
Tackling large issues such as Catholicism, Judaism, anorexia, Irish politics, martyrdom, feminism, motherhood, despair, human propensity toward violence, Gordon is fearless in bringing all to the table for our examination.
In the letter to her mother, Pearl writes:
“Try to call upon the values you have given me: a love of justice, a need to bear witness to the truth. I am doing this in the name of justice, in witness to the truth. I am marking a wrongful death, for which I was responsible, and other public wrongs that will lead to death and more death.”
Pearl, a student of language, believes that her death will be the ultimate sentence, the only viable sentence she can offer in the name of her despair. She believes her death will be more useful than her life.
And in the letter written to Joseph, a longtime family friend and the son of Maria’s father’s housekeeper:
“I believe that of all people you will understand this best, will comprehend most fully the decisions I have made. A boy died because of me. Because I rendered him as nothing in my self-righteous blindness in the name of an idea. I made a thing of him. I stole his faith and hope.
I know about some things that you and my mother never told me: faith, hope, and love. I have never naturally been a person of hope. Nor, I believe, have you. I have lost my faith in the goodness of life. Replacing that belief: a belief about malignity. In the will to harm. And the dismay that this impulse is in myself.”
Pearl has come to martyr herself not only out of profound guilt, but because she has lost her ability to see humanity in anything but the worst light, to see any characteristics other than the will to harm. The narrative offers examples of the most shocking genocides experienced in history: the Holocaust; Rwanda; Bosnia; Cambodia. Other equally horrific examples of violence on the smaller scale are also brought to the page so that the reader may understand Pearl’s despair. Fortunately, Gordon has included forgiveness and redemption in the mix, making the experience of reading the book a more fully realized and certainly a more hopeful contemplation on human nature.
At times the narrative feels slow, but by the end it won me over, and I have come to see that slowness as one of its many good qualities. It allows the reader time to digest difficult, often painful, issues at a pace conducive to careful consideration. This is not a novel to be devoured but rather savored. A novel not to be missed.
- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. I'm also working on two novels and a short story collection. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.