Pearl by Sian Hughes: A Novel of Love, Sacrifice and Motherhood

Pearl by Sian Hughes is a book of loss and of memory.

Pearl by Sian Hughes is a story of life as it is served, and making the most of it, Samiksha Ransom reviews.

“I had carelessly foolishly lost my mother. I had failed to keep hold of her and let her slip away.”
Sian Hughes, Pearl

The 2023 Booker Prize longlisted novel Pearl by Sian Hughes, is a book that both breaks you and mends you in the same breath. In the ‘acknowledgements’ at the end of the book, Hughes mentions she must thank everyone in her “entire adult life” because it took her a lifetime to write the book. The book, in fact, does reflect this because it captures the good, bad and ugly of life; and in all of it, and despite it all, also, the very good.

Pearl is narrated by Marianne, now a mother herself, who has a strange relationship with her own mother, or rather, her absence. At just the age of eight, Marianne was abandoned by her mother Margaret, who performed a sudden vanishing act, leaving behind a perfectly lovely family without informing anyone where she was going or when she would be back or if even. Marianne’s entire life is an attempt to piece the puzzle together and figure out the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. At every turn in her life, the same question confronts her, why did she leave?

So Marianne tries to remember and even write an unfinished book about her mother, she tries to find consolation in the mediaeval poem Pearl, one of her mother’s favourites, as she continues to wish for reunion. But there’s one problem – try as she might, she simply cannot remember everything – she was too young at the time, too much time has passed since then, she has left her mother’s house and moved to The New House, she is struggling to be what her own mother wasn’t – the ‘right’ mother for her daughter, the “normal mother” her daughter claims she isn’t. Yet, she cannot forget either. After her painting sessions, the memories creep back up and the impact of grief is the same – it’s like being sucker punched in the face.

What exactly is it that pulls Margaret away from her perfect little life full of sunshine and trees, songs sung at the Green Chapel, a son and a daughter and an angel for a husband? What kind of force is able to make one abandon their family, just like that? Was it something she had left undone, unfinished? Or an ending she wanted to complete herself, just like what Marianne strives to do years after her mother’s vanishing act? Is this the “family history of grief” Marianne mentions at the start of the book?

Marianne keeps turning to art as her saving grace and yet it is not art that saves her in the end. It is something much more powerful, and even though the book is written in a folkloric and fantastical style, it comes as a bit of a surprise that what saves Marianne and ensures she is a good mother to Sussanah, her daughter – the kind that does not walk out on her and worries if she dressed her teenage daughter right, and whether Sussanah likes her hair – is simply love, and the promise of love, and faith in that love.

Marianne tries hard to remember what those eight years with her mother were like. And from there she builds the version of the story about her mother’s disappearance that she chooses to remember – an investigation not into the whats but into the who. And the answer saves her.

Pearl brings interesting perspectives to motherhood. We are our mothers. Mothers are always to be blamed. They are responsible creatures. But are we our mothers? Are mothers always to be blamed? What is “a normal mother”?

Pearl is the story of Marianne, Margaret and the many Marriannes and Margarets of this world. Hughes writes carefully with measured words and a poignancy I haven’t witnessed before. Every word has purpose, every sentence is intentional – the effect is nothing but beauty, which I stopped to admire several times while reading this book.

Pearl by Sian Hughes is a story of life as it is served, and making the most of it. A book you shouldn’t miss out on!

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About the reviewer:

Samiksha Ransom is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Tint Journal, EKL Review, The Chakkar, JAKE, The Lake, Live Wire (by The Wire), The Friday Poem and more. Her work was longlisted for the Poet’s in Vogue Challenge by the Young Poet’s Network, UK in 2023. Currently, Samiksha also edits for The Selkie Publications CIC and The Dawn Review. In the past, she has edited for the borderline and The Terrarium (Hellebore Press) literary magazines. In her newsletter, ‘Letters from Sam – Conversations, Maybe’ on Substack, she shares writing and publishing tips. She also teaches creative writing workshops occasionally. You can reach out to her on  Instagram and Linktree.

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