The title character of Mary Gordon’s Pearl is a twenty-year-old American college student who, at the opening of the novel, has chained herself to the American embassy in Dublin in the final days of a secret hunger strike. Her mother, Maria, arrives at the hospital just after local authorities have cut through Pearl’s chains and rushed her there to begin force feeding. The physician warns Maria that they are most likely too late to save her daughter, but are doing all they can—and that Pearl has refused to see her. Unable to gain access to her dying child, Maria spends harrowing days pacing her hotel, trying to make sense of the note Pearl left at the embassy explaining that her death is meant to draw attention to, and atone for, her part in another’s death. Maria has long since abandoned her Catholic background, raising Pearl in a decidedly non-religious home. So where is Pearl getting her concepts of martyrdom and substitutionary death? And how has she, in one short student exchange term, gotten so deeply involved in Dublin’s political crossfire? As she tracks down the answers, Maria’s only support is the equally-anguished Joseph, Maria’s childhood friend (and continuator of her deceased father’s religious icon business), who is Pearl’s only real father figure.
Already, you can see the religious allusions. Maria and Joseph are the parental figures of the young person who has chosen to give her life for another. Each of them is prepared, in her and his own way, to pay the greatest price for the sake of their Pearl. All of the major characters stand at the crossroads of the soul, facing forward but doing battle with the past, and choosing between self and other, cynicism and faith, revenge and forgiveness.
This is a demanding, cerebral novel that moves at the pace of a spy thriller. It raises huge questions about private morality as well as the interplay of religion and world affairs; at the same time, it is an intimate mother-daughter story. An unidentified and omniscient narrator moves the plot forward, and occasionally backward, by presenting, almost as portraits, the points-of-view of Maria, Joseph, and Pearl. The use of the present tense and frequently-terse sentences lends immediacy and sharpness to the action. Several passages are memorable for their insight of character or wordcraft, and give a sense of the overall style:
Maria and her friends have to learn new words [as they come of age in the Vietnam era]: napalm, friendly fire. Death is surrounded by lies. They do not know what to believe. The men they thought of as, if not their fathers, then something like their fathers, are lying to them again and again… Maria knows her father cannot be believed. He keeps using the word communism. She keeps telling him he doesn’t understand communism. The North Vietnamese, Mao and the Chinese he leads, she says, are agrarian idealists, heroes. In years to come, Maria and her friends will discover that they were wrong about the North Vietnamese and the Chinese, but their fathers were wrong too, and their inability to determine who was more wrong will hobble their minds—the parts of their minds that think about the larger world—for years and years.
. . .
[Maria] wonders is babies aren’t allowed in first class and is prepared to be outraged by that. She has no evidence that babies aren’t allowed in first class, only what she knows of the world from working for twenty years with children. The false claims of allegiance to the young and the real failures to provide for them make her think it’s possible that babies are excluded from first class; thinking it’s possible, she quickly moves to believing it is really the case. Outrage is strikable in her: a flint always ready to catch fire, and the actual, potential, or remembered treatment of children is always able to inspire her outrage. Our children, people say, but she knows they mean only their own, only the ones who live in their houses or similar ones….
When she was a teenager, seventeen perhaps, she told [her father], “I want a world where everyone’s children are as important as our own.” And her father had said, “That’s impossible. It’s against the Natural Law.”
The Natural Law. It was something Seymour Meyers invoked, she’d come to see, to justify all kinds of tyrannies. But now, flying to her daughter who is at the edge of death, she knows he was right. If someone said to her, Choose, you must choose now, right this moment; we will sacrifice a hundred children to keep your child alive, what would she say? She knows what she would say, and she knows what it means about her. She has cast her lot with those who say my own and mean something connected to themselves, the radius of the circle that surrounds their own bodies: nothing larger, nothing as large as the whole world.
. . .
There is no reason for Breeda to forgive [Pearl]…. But Breeda goes on living; Breeda has said there is nothing to forgive. There isn’t any way of understanding it. It isn’t sensible, it isn’t reasonable; therefore incomprehensible. What Bobby Sands’s sister Bernadette did was comprehensible. Her brother died; she planted a bomb in revenge. Revenge is comprehensible, she thinks, forgiveness is not. Comprehensible. Comprehend means to include….Include means to enclose. I cannot include this, I cannot enclose it with the power of my mind. I cannot comprehend.
Comprehension. Incomprehension. She feels the pressure of her incomprehension, a weakness that is at the same time a force….I cannot comprehend. Meaning, I cannot take it in. Does it take her in then: does it surround her, include her, enclose her, the way she thought death would enclose her…? Is that what saves us, then, the incomprehensible?
Like I said: attention demanding. But weighty questions worth pondering.
This is another book I was turned on to as a result of the Festival of Faith & Writing, where I had the pleasure of briefly speaking with Mary Gordon and hearing her (also thought-provoking) plenary address. A professor at Barnard and author of several other novels and a memoir, she was earlier this year appointed State Author of New York.