Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Pearl Diver, by Jeff Talarigo

I started reading this book via the DearReader book club emails I've been receiving for years, and when I found it available through my audiobook rental club, I was glad to be able to finish the story.

Talarigo tells the tale of a woman who spends the better part of her life in a Japanese leprosarium. Vignettes regarding different aspects of her ordeal are introduced by descriptions of artifacts (presumably found by a historian as the colony shuts down).

The author crafted this story around real events, and one can appreciate the details he included from his research. At first, the choppiness between the vignettes annoyed me, probably because the beginning (when she first notices symptoms) was presented without interruption. Once I realized that he'd made a switch, I resigned myself to reading with a new mindset. Patient rights is an underlying theme throughout the protagonist's tale, and at the end, when the author introduces us to an HIV+ character, he demonstrates yet another instance in which the current culture has not learned enough from our history.

From the author' site:
"In 1948, a nineteen-year-old pearl diver's dreams of spending her life combing the waters of Japan’s Inland Sea are shattered when she discovers she has leprosy. By law, she is exiled to an island leprosarium, where she is stripped of her dignity and instructed to forget her past. Her name is erased from her family records, and she is forced to select a new one. To the two thousand patients on the island of Nagashima, she becomes Miss Fuji.
Although drugs arrest the course of Miss Fuji's disease, she cannot leave the colony. Instead, she becomes a caretaker to the other patients, and through the example of their courage, she gains insight into the deep wellspring of strength she will need to reclaim her freedom. Written with precision and eloquence, The Pearl Diver is a dazzling meditation on isolation and community, cruelty and compassion.
Jeff Talarigo won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Pearl Diver."

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