October 2005

Barbara J. King

fiction

Pearl by Mary Gordon

The power of love and the power of language inhabit each other, co-construct each other, in Mary Gordon’s Pearl. Sentence by sentence, the force of love and the force of language tell the story of Maria and her daughter Pearl, a young American woman who starved herself for six weeks and chained herself to her country’s embassy in Dublin. Pearl feels herself to be a person of no force in the world, yet a person who must bear witness to what, for her, defines humankind: the will to harm.

Pearl believes she can only bear witness by turning her life into a sentence: a death sentence. Ireland’s bloody past, and the incendiary present Pearl inhabits as she studies in Dublin, offers all too abundant evidence of the will to harm. The Irish past and present (a present in which the hunger-striker Bobby Sands is still very much alive in memory) weighs on Pearl, but equally so does a personal tragedy. She befriends a 15-year-old boy, a boy who cannot read, who is vulnerable, and who is caught up in political forces he does not understand. In the relationship between Pearl and this boy, love and language collide; Pearl cares for him deeply, yet, in an irrevocable moment, she flings words at him in an act of language from which neither of them can recover. Pearl, horrified by the will to harm that lives on inside her no less than anyone else, finds meaning only in willing her own death.

As Pearl’s chains are forcibly cut and she is taken to hospital, Maria flies from New York to Dublin in order to will her daughter to life. In the wake of Pearl’s hopelessness, Maria’s every belief about herself, about her daughter, and about the larger world is shattered. Pearl’s will is fierce and it causes Maria to ask herself whether she ever knew her daughter. Moreover, did she, Maria, somehow cause Pearl irreparable harm? How could she have raised a daughter who chooses against life?

Maria’s love of Pearl sears the page:

The greatest passion of her life seizes her when she first holds her baby. It is not gentle, not at all; it is a violent, predatory bird with a strong deep beak that lifts her, exhilarated, over treetops, swirls her dangerously, dangles her, turns her over and over, sometimes allowing her to soar in the plain ecstasy of sheer flight. The predator bird: she cannot explain it to anyone, this power and danger, the danger of being taken up entirely, whirled who knows where, then dropped, just anywhere at all. Why, she wonders, do people think that mother love is peaceful? The soaring and the drowning, the terror, the exaltation, the sharp bites of the beak in the soft skin at the back of the neck...

Every mother, I think, is pierced by those sharp bites, at least every mother who equips her daughter to leave home for the world. Gordon describes this pain exquisitely:

My own, my own: you had to say it, you could not keep from saying it. And yet children are not your own. For a while you think they are, as you clasp them safe. And then -- how does it happen? -- they have somehow wriggled free and they are riding on he bird’s back... You can’t get me! they shout, intoxicated by the height, their hair windblown, their cheeks burnished.... ‘I am not yours,’ they say...

Together, Pearl and Maria form the double-helix backbone of this book. Intertwined yet separable, they comprise each other and oppose each other all at once. Woven through their relationship is the connection each has to a man named Joseph. Joseph, who flies from Rome to Dublin to join the two women, is a lifelong friend to each (in ways that show the depths concealed at times by the word "friend"). He loves Pearl as desperately as Maria does; how he expresses this love at Pearl’s bedside causes a monumental shift in the way all three think, act, and relate.

Love, in this book, is inseparable from language, and Gordon’s mastery at word selection is unmatched. Pearl herself is irreplaceable, Maria is relentless and excessive. Beyond this descriptive level, language transforms every interaction, whether real or only imagined. About Maria, Joseph realizes: “Her words can force him to believe something he knows to be untrue. And he resents it.” Maria, herself, is shackled almost pathologically to the precision and significance of language. Meeting Pearl’s Irish boyfriend for the first time, she is taken aback by how insubstantial he looks, as if he’s been through an ordeal: “The word ordeal presses itself on her shoulders; she feels its heaviness and is extent.” When he answers a remark of hers with “Whatever,” she, even in extremis, cannot help but think, “Whatever. Without an adverbial objective. Strange to hear it in an Irish accent, a noxious American import, like Muzak or McDonald’s.”

At first, Pearl’s primary language seems quite different from Maria’s and Joseph’s, for it is embodied. Remember, her goal is to make of herself a death sentence: “Yes, I do think the body is stronger than words,” she tells herself. Yet, what finally penetrates her calm, nutrition-starved embrace of impending death? A word that mislabels the meaning of her action. She is placed on suicide watch in hospital, which infuriates her: “She’s thought of herself, always, as a witness, never a suicide... She has been misunderstood, misnamed. She understands for the first time the rage of Bobby Sands and his fellow prisoners at being misnamed -- in their case, as criminals rather than political prisoners; in hers, as suicide rather than witness.”

I will not reveal what happens to Pearl by the book’s end, but prayer (in a sense) and forgiveness (in a sense) both enter in to the unfolding events. That religion-laced memories, thoughts, and emotions play a major role in Pearl will come as no surprise to readers of Mary Gordon’s previous novels (including The Company of Women and Final Payments). Just as Gordon gives emotion to her characters without verging on the too sentimental, she seeks out big questions without indulging in heavy-handedness: “But what is the language or prayer for someone like herself who has staked her life against all that prayer stands for?” (Maria) “If you were forgiven, could you still be unforgivable?” (Pearl)

The beauty of Mary Gordon’s love and language suffuses Pearl. It’s a book to be read slowly and savored.

Pearl by Mary Gordon
Pantheon
ISBN: 037542315X
368 Pages