MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER, by Lizzie Pook
In 1861, the largest known species of pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima, was found in bulk off the northern coast of Western Australia. This discovery made Broome – a sweltering, remote town at the edge of the Indian Ocean – the center of the world’s lucrative mother-of-pearl industry in the late 19th century. At its peak, Australia’s pearl shell was the fourth-largest export, trading at 400 British pounds a ton, the equivalent of around $ 44,000 today. Prospectors came in force to seek their fortune.
For Eliza Brightwell, the quick-witted young protagonist of Lizzie Pook’s debut, “Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter,” the pearl rush makes a bracing change. Having lost everything in England, her father, Charles, convinces the family they can start anew. They land in 1886 on the blood-red sands of Bannin Bay, a fictional stand-in for Broome – and like the real town, simultaneously cosmopolitan and isolated, over a thousand miles from the region’s capital.
“In those early days,” Pook writes, “Bannin swaggered like an animal: bony and bristling with a miscellany of men.” There can be conflict, the president of the Pearlers’ Association warns the Brightwells, between the bay’s “Europeans, Malays, Manilamen, Koepangers, countless Japanese.” Europeans maintain predominance though outnumbered a hundred to one. The society ladies of Bannin cling to a puritanism, although their setting renders such primness absurd.
When Eliza’s beloved father fails to return from the sea, it falls to her to investigate his disappearance. She seems to be the only person in town who cares that he might still be alive. Charles has become a successful pearler, and there are plenty of people keen to see him gone.
Pook, a British travel journalist, was inspired to write “Moonlight” after encountering the history of a British pearling family with a resourceful matriarch in the Fremantle Maritime Museum. Pearling was a harsh job in a harsh landscape. Divers faced sharks, cyclones and the bends, a phenomenon not yet understood. The largest Japanese cemetery outside of Asia is in Broome. As “Moonlight” recounts, early pearlers favored pregnant Aboriginal women as divers, believing they had increased lung capacity; they did not always return.
Pook’s writing is reliably vivid, alternating between dense lyricism and free indirect speech with an old-timey diction. The eventual explanation for Charles’s disappearance is somewhat thin – even Eliza thinks so. But “Moonlight” is a sensitive and compassionate book, admirable in its engaging synthesis of multiple strands of history. It is alive to the complexity of how things must have been, and its consideration of race, gender and sexuality invigorates the era with a freshness that feels organic.
The novel is shaped around a straightforward mystery plot, which demands attention to the concrete and material. But “Moonlight” feels more interesting when you allow the narrative to play out on the symbolic level, when its ideas borrow the hallucinatory quality of the landscape. At its heart, this is a story about a family – whether it can survive in an inhospitable environment – and whether it is possible to be a good person in a corrupted world.
“Do you think my father is good?” Eliza asks her friend Min, an orphaned prospector’s daughter used to make her own way. “Could he have been a good person if he did the same every day as the rest of them? Send divers down for shell. … Chase wealth so furiously as pearlers do. ”
“I don’t know, Eliza,” Min replies. “What can good even mean in a place like this? ”
Yen Pham is a writer and editor from Australia.
MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER, by Lizzie Pook | 304 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $ 27.99