Siân Hughes is a writer who grew up in a small village in Cheshire, England, where her debut novel Pearl is set

Returning to live there after her mother’s death, she borrowed from the medieval poem ‘Pearl’ to write a story set in an old house she cycled past every day as a child. Her first collection of poetry, The Missing (2009), was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, shortlisted for the Felix Dennis and Aldeburgh prizes, and won the Seamus Heaney Award. Pearl, her first novel, is longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023.

Siân Hughes on writing Pearl

‘Okay, well this is embarrassing. I first invented the characters as a teenager, then I became obsessed with the Medieval poem ‘Pearl’ and with trying to write about the death by drowning of a good friend. I wrote the entire book in long-hand first. Or the first version. I have written more versions – all totally different with different narrators and with timelines varying from 24 hours to 32 years – than I am going to admit. All I can say is, I don’t exactly recommend this method of lifelong obsession, but this was the project that would not leave me alone. I felt it was mine, somehow, that it belonged where I belonged, and that my relationship with it defined me as a person.   

‘For as long as I have tried to write this book it has been a response to the poem, ‘Pearl’, so much that I cannot remember how the two first became entangled. I love the poem. It might be the most perfectly complex and yet emotionally direct and simple poem every written. I realised that my story and the story of ‘Pearl’ both had a parent and child separated by a river of death and trying to communicate with each other, and that although the poem promises consolation in the form of religious teaching, the narrator does not feel consoled, in fact he remains despairing. What fascinated me about the poem was this interplay between raw emotion and the cage of intricate stanzas in which it is expressed.   

‘I suppose in retrospect I could say that writing the book kept me sane, but at the time it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps even the opposite. I suspect that if a writer understood how their writing was processing parts of their own lives, they would lose interest in it pretty quickly. It only makes sense in that way later. Much later.   

Read the full interview here.

Siân Hughes

Pearl, an exceptional debut novel, is both a mystery story and a meditation on grief, abandonment and consolation, evoking the profundities of the haunting medieval poem. The degree of difficulty in writing a book of this sort – at once quiet and hugely ambitious – is very high. It’s a book that will be passed from hand to hand for a long time to come

— The Booker Prize 2023 judges on Pearl

All nominated books

Pearl by Siân Hughes