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The Pearl Diver    by Jeff Talarigo order for
Pearl Diver
by Jeff Talarigo
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Jeff Talarigo's debut novel, The Pearl Diver, is written in flowing, lyrical prose. Talarigo elegantly describes Japan's landscapes - the rocks, the sea, and lights shining from opposite shores, while sensitively depicting his characters' lives.

The story is centered in 1948 post-war Japan, on Shodo Island where a nineteen-year old woman is in her fourth season of an ancient occupation. She averages fifty dives per day, withstanding cold water temperatures at the bottom of the Inland Sea. At the end of each day, she 'took the smell of the sea with her to sleep each night ... shivered getting dressed, ... selling her catch, shivered while shivering.' In the off-season, she works with her family in the rice fields. After the doctor diagnoses her leprosy, she is exiled to the Nagashima (Island) Leprosarium. After facing a degrading medical examination, being sprayed with disinfectant that leaves her body drenched with a chemical odor, stinging the eyes, and burning the throat, she is given the number '2645'. She is ordered to forget the past, and told that life begins at the sanatorium. She is informed that she has disgraced her family and her name is taken off of the family register - 'as if I were dead', she says.

She renames herself 'Miss Fuji' in honor of her beloved Mount Fuji. Her 'new family' includes storyteller Miss Min, gardener Mr. Shirayam, Christian Miss Morikowa, Communist Mr. Nogami, urn painter Mr. Oyama, and pregnant Miss Matsu. Miss Fuji spends days assisting others, massaging their crippled, blinded, and deformed bodies to somehow give them the hope of life. Patients are injected with a new drug called Promin, which causes painful side affects. Miss Fuji secretly investigates parts of the island at night, becoming captivated by Mushiage, a city on the opposite shore. In the fourth year of confinement, she is visited by an older sister who tells her, 'You've ruined my life. You deserve to be with all these freaks here.' To which Miss Fuji replies, 'There are no freaks here, only people who are sick.' In the spring of her fifth year at Nagashima, Uncle Jiro, her second and last visitor arrives. The author's rendition of the meeting between Miss Fuji and her Uncle is an especially endearing, and compelling exchange, describing years past when he took her on a very long trip to climb Mount Fuji (Fujisan).

Savoring each page of this novel, I visualized the shunned and exiled patients, their surroundings and agony, and rejoiced with them at even the smallest achievement. Poetically and emotionally haunting, Talarigo's novel tugs at the heart, absorbs the mind, and makes the soul ask ... why? And there is no answer. The Pearl Diver is one of the best books I have read, and calls to my mind masterpieces such as Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

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