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December 14, 2021

The Women of Pearl Island by Polly Crosby ~ a Review

by MK French


Tartelin Brown answers an ad for a personal assistant for Marianne Stourbridge, an eccentric old woman whose only companions for years had been butterflies and memories. Marianne's family once owned the island she lives on, but it had been commandeered by the British government in World War II. Some of Marianne's painful memories involve family secrets, and she can only get past them if she can share them with Tartelin.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

The Women of Pearl Island
December 2021; Park Row; 978-0778311140
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); coming of age

The novel has a slow and steady pace as we begin. Scarred and bounced around between foster families, Tartelin at first was concerned about the isolation on the island. Others on the island have their own quirks, and Marianne is something of an enigma at the start. Descriptions are lulling so that I really feel like I'm on a somewhat private island with few people and animals with strange bodily conformations. Marianne eventually reveals aspects of her past to Tartelin, just as we see snippets of her past in that story thread. At the end, we learn of Marianne's biggest secret, and understand exactly why she had to return to the island, and why she wanted to track mutations. It's a sad story, and Tartelin truly does understand it without judgment.

I can easily see this as a book club book. This is a hauntingly beautiful story, full of nuanced emotions. Sometimes disconnecting from electricity and screens can lead to discoveries about the self and the place you have in the world.


Read an excerpt from The Women of Peral Island

ONE

Tartelin

Summer 2018


“I do not require diaper changing, I do not require spoon-feeding, I do not require my ego massaging. What I do require is someone with a deft pair of hands. I asked for someone with experience in dealing with little things, delicate things. A scientist, perhaps. Is that you?”

I nod.

“Show me your hands, then, child.”

I hold them out, palm side downward, and she wheels herself over and inspects them. Her own hands, I see now, have a tremor.

“You’re a pretty girl,” she says, her eyes drifting over my face, glancing off my cheek, and I feel my skin redden. “Not very robust, though. Are you sure this is the right job for you?” I open my mouth to speak, but she cuts me off. “What did you do, before you came here? How is it that you are suited to this vacancy?”

I frown. We went over all this in our letters, back and forth, back and forth. Written on paper, not sent by email, each one signed Miss Marianne Stourbridge in her regimented, barbed-wire scrawl. My life back home was the reason she chose me. But then, she is old, and she can’t be expected to remember everything.

“I grew up around my mother’s artwork, helping her out in her studio,” I say, more loudly than I mean to. “And then I went to art school myself. Mum’s work was focused on found objects, making art from bits of nature…feathers, leaves and twigs—”

“Lepidoptera aren’t ‘bits of nature,’ Miss Brown.”

“She also made sculptures out of grains of rice in her spare time. I helped her.”

“Why on earth would anyone do that?” She leaves the question hanging in the air and turns her chair abruptly, wheeling herself back to her desk.

The chair is made from cane. It looks like an antique, and I’m surprised it still works. It must be exhausting to propel.

“It’s a shame you don’t have a scientific background, but now you’re here, you’ll have to do. Here, hold this.” She lifts a pair of gold tweezers into the air and I hasten forward and take them. “No, not like that. Pinch. Gently. That’s it.”

I adjust my hold and feel how the spring of the tines is like an extension of my fingers, and I’m back with my mother and she’s saying, “Careful, Tartelin, don’t squeeze too hard. Feather barbs bruise easily.” But before I can use this newfound body part, the tweezers are whisked away from me, and she’s turning again to the desk and bending over her work. I stand by her side and wait, wondering if I’m allowed to go. The clock on the mantel chimes loudly. I count eight. I look at my watch. It’s ten past two.

Miss Stourbridge? Shall I adjust your clock?”

“No point. It’ll only go back to eight o’clock.”

I look over at it, frowning. The second hand is juddering in jerky movements. It makes me dizzy to look at it, as if it’s measuring a different kind of time. I turn back to my employer.

Miss Stourbridge is so still as she works. I can see her teas-ing the body of a dead moth from a cocoon, her fingers moving infinitesimally slowly. I look around the room. It is lined in dark panels of wood, and every surface has frames and frames of butterflies and moths, glinting pins plunged into husked bodies.

“Did you catch all these butterflies?”

She is silent, and at first I think she hasn’t heard me. But then I see she’s holding her breath so as not to disturb the moth’s delicate wings. I watch closely, the clock ticking behind us. I’m looking not at her work but at her ribs, waiting for them to inflate, waiting for her nostrils to swell, anything that shows air is passing into her chest. My eyes sting from the pain of staring. She is so still that she has become a part of the chair she sits in. Only her finger and thumb move achingly slowly, and the minutes tick by.

When I was young, I used to try to be as still as she is now. My mother would sit me on her knee and tell me stories, and I would hold myself as still as a statue, bewitched by her tales.

“Long ago,” she always began, in a voice that was reserved only for when the moon was rising, “I was a tiny jellied spawn no bigger than a pearl, floating in the earth’s great oceans. The fish nibbled and swallowed my brothers and sisters up, snap, snap, snap, and I was left, coming at last to rest on the pebbled shore of a beach. And that is how I came to have these,” she would say, waving her hands in front of my face, so close that they skimmed my eyelashes and all I could see was the thin layer of webbed skin between each finger. To my unprejudiced four-year-old eyes, the webs were not a deformity: they were beautiful, useful, magical, and I wished with all my heart that I could be like her, could be from the sea.

I take my eyes from the poor moth on the desk and look over Miss Stourbridge’s head to the picture window that frames the sea beyond, and I remember anew that the sea surrounds us here, like a comforting arm holding the world at bay. A feeling of calm settles over me. However strange this woman is, whatever my job might entail, it was the right decision to come here, I can feel it.

I had seen the advertisement in one of Mum’s ornithological magazines. Mum bought them for the photographs. She particularly liked the close-ups of the birds’ eyes and feathers. The magazines were littered throughout our house, spattered with drops of paint, pages ripped out and twisted together into the vague forms of gulls and robins so that every surface was covered in paper birds made of paper birds.

But the latest magazine had landed on the doormat, pristine and untouched, and when I shook it from its clear plastic covering, it had fallen open on the ad.

PA required to assist lepidopterist. Must be able to start immediately. Must not be squeamish.

When I had written to ask for more information, the return address had intrigued me.

Dogger Bank House, Dohhalund.

Dohhalund. An unusual word, not English-sounding at all. A bit of research showed me that it was a tiny island off the East Anglian coast, the long thin shape of it reminiscent of a fish leaping out of the water. Its heritage was a mixture of English and Dutch. When I looked at it on a map on my phone, it had seemed so small that I imagined you could walk its circumference in only a few hours. I had tried to picture what kind of an island it would be: a cold, hard rock grizzled with the droppings of thousands of seabirds, or a flat stretch of white sand, waiting for my footprints? Whatever it turned out to be, the isolation of it appealed to me.

Miss Stourbridge’s letters had been vague about the position she was offering, but she did tell me, rather proudly, that the island had belonged to her family for hundreds of years. While I wait, I look about the room, searching for photographs, evidence of other people. Where is her family now?

I shift my weight carefully from foot to foot and I glance at my watch. Two twenty-three. Thirteen minutes. I wonder if I’m being paid to stand and do nothing. I look around the room. Next to the desk is a large clear glass box. Inside hang rows and rows of cocoons of all different shapes and sizes. One or two are twitching. I turn away with a sting of shame, feeling somehow as if I’ve looked at something I shouldn’t have.

Over by the window, there is a huge black telescope on a stand. Unlike everything else in this place, it looks very modern. Next to it on the windowsill sits a battered pair of binoculars on a worn leather strap.

Quietly I back toward the chaise longue in the corner and lower myself onto its tattered silk cover. It’s the first time I’ve sat down in hours, and my body sings with relief. I edge my hand into my pocket and pull out my phone. It’s switched off: the battery ran low somewhere off the coast of Norfolk at around the same time that the signal disappeared. The lack of signal hadn’t worried me: I’d been looking forward to charging my phone when I arrived, tapping in Miss Stourbridge’s Wi-Fi code, the friendly glow of my phone’s screen a com-fort in this new place.

I look around for an outlet in the room, and with a sudden slick shiver I find I can’t see any. There must be electricity here, surely. But if not… Realization runs through me like a thrill: if there’s no electricity in this house, there won’t be any Wi-Fi either. And with no signal, there’s no way of contacting the outside world. No way for the outside world to contact me. The roar of the sea appears to amplify through

I take my eyes from the poor moth on the desk and look over Miss Stourbridge’s head to the picture window that frames the sea beyond, and I remember anew that the sea surrounds us here, like a comforting arm holding the world at bay. A feeling of calm settles over me. However strange this woman is, whatever my job might entail, it was the right decision to come here, I can feel it.

I had seen the advertisement in one of Mum’s ornithological magazines. Mum bought them for the photographs. She particularly liked the close-ups of the birds’ eyes and feathers. The magazines were littered throughout our house, spattered with drops of paint, pages ripped out and twisted together into the vague forms of gulls and robins so that every surface was covered in paper birds made of paper birds.

But the latest magazine had landed on the doormat, pristine and untouched, and when I shook it from its clear plastic covering, it had fallen open on the ad.

PA required to assist lepidopterist. Must be able to start immediately. Must not be squeamish.

When I had written to ask for more information, the return address had intrigued me.

Dogger Bank House, Dohhalund.

Dohhalund. An unusual word, not English-sounding at all. A bit of research showed me that it was a tiny island off the East Anglian coast, the long thin shape of it reminiscent of a fish leaping out of the water. Its heritage was a mixture of English and Dutch. When I looked at it on a map on my phone, it had seemed so small that I imagined you could walk its circumference in only a few hours. I had tried to picture what kind of an island it would be: a cold, hard rock grizzled with the droppings of thousands of seabirds, or a flat stretch of white sand, waiting for my footprints? Whatever it turned out to be, the isolation of it appealed to me.


Excerpted from The Women of Pearl Island by Polly Crosby, Copyright © 2021 by Polly Crosby. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.



Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever. 




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