"The Pearl Diver" by Jeff Talarigo

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How do we tell a story of human isolation? Jeff Talarigo’s The Pearl Diver provides a precise and balanced and beautiful example. Mr. Talarigo collapses long decades of a woman’s life spent in a Japanese leprosarium into a spare, moving tale. Its light, almost delicate, touch with major human issues provides a gratifying payoff.

At the outset of the novel, our nineteen-year-old unnamed heroine belongs to an exclusive group: she is one of a handful of pearl divers, women of all ages who plumb the depths of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and bring up lobster, clams, other mussels, and on lucky days, pearls.  She is still young and naïve when she’s forced to leave her beloved vocation. She’s found to have the dreaded curse-like plague of leprosy. In an instant she falls from her exalted, insular position to the level of the lowest outcast of Japanese society. She’s shunned, sent away to an island prison of the leprosarium, and even forced to change her name.

It turns out she has a non-infectious form of the disease, and treatments are developed during her early years in care keep her own case from progressing very far. She becomes a helper to the staff, giving massages, transporting those worse-off in wheelchairs, pulling nurse duty. She retains a certain independence in the patient community, earning its affection and respect, while making the facility’s officials suspicious.

Events unfold with an understated force: our heroine adopts the name Miss Fuji, and we learn of the climb of the famous mountain with her uncle when a little girl. She sneaks off the isolation of the island to her hometown, but is caught and sent to solitary confinement, and then forced to help with the grisly eugenic work done at the clinic. She visits Kyoto and sees various sights there to honor a man who has passed away. When at length, after struggles against the superstitious authorities, and more than forty years in the isolation of quarantine, Miss Fuji takes a flat in normal society. Maybe she’s planning her own death. She finds, however, an alien world, where pearl diving is turned into a tourist attraction, featuring nubile, bikini-clad girls who have never been more than ankle-deep.

In the end, though, she makes a surprising decision about the end of her days. Her life has been one of service to those even less fortunate than herself. At various times during her life, she knows others value and love her, and in their limited ways, return the charity she herself has shown. This is a tale of quiet heartbreak, but also of fulfilling forays into relations with other human beings, united in their isolation. Mr. Talarigo has written a restrained, graceful examination of how afflicted souls support each other, and how the superstitious so easily and brutally shun them. A beautiful, balanced book, and recommended very highly.
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