Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023. Siân Hughes contemplates both the power and the fragility of the human mind in her haunting debut novel, which was inspired by the medieval poem of the same name
Marianne is eight years old when her mother goes missing. Left behind with her baby brother and grieving father in a ramshackle house on the edge of a small village, she clings to the fragmented memories of her mother’s love; the smell of fresh herbs, the games they played, and the songs and stories of her childhood.
As time passes, Marianne struggles to adjust, fixated on her mother’s disappearance and the secrets she’s sure her father is keeping from her. Discovering a medieval poem called Pearl - and trusting in its promise of consolation - Marianne sets out to make a visual illustration of it, a task that she returns to over and over but somehow never manages to complete.
Tormented by an unmarked gravestone in an abandoned chapel and the tidal pull of the river, her childhood home begins to crumble as the past leads her down a path of self-destruction. But can art heal Marianne? And will her own future as a mother help her find peace?
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
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.
I don’t have a desk, let alone a room. I wrote most of the book sitting up in bed with my young son asleep on the other half of the mattress, keeping the light on low so as not to wake him and staying up so late I was absolutely useless in the morning.
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.