Fair warning– the author of this book is my coworker, Jeff Telarigo. We teach at the same school. I had been meaning to read his books for a while, but it wasn’t until I had a flight that I picked it up for a bit of plane reading. I was hoping I would at least enjoy it enough not to have to withhold my opinion from him, but it far, far, far exceeded my expectations. I finished before we landed and wouldn’t talk to my boyfriend the whole time. I also cried in an airport restaurant on the layover. Embarrassing.
The Pearl Diver is the story of a young Japanese pearl diver who is diagnosed with leprosy. She is sent to a leper’s colony just before a cure was found. Even though there is a cure and the state of her disease (which is mild) is arrested, and even though leper colonies rapidly began to disappear from the world, Japan’s leper colonies and policy of absolute quarantine have lasted into the millennium. There are still people in Nagashima today, mostly because it is impossible to reintegrate them into society. I know from talking to Jeff that he spent quite a bit of time at Nagashima researching the book with his son. The structure of the book is based on a museum one of the lepers was constructing at the time– each museum artifact tells a story. Jeff lived in Japan for a number of years, married a Japanese woman, and speaks the language, so the setting and culture is accurate– at least according to the Japanese students at our school who have read it. Almost everything in the book is true with the exception of the protagonist, through whose eyes we see the story unfold.
Upon entry to the Nagashima island leprosy camp, the Pearl Diver loses her name and chooses a new one- Miss Fuji, a name she chooses based on a fond memory of a trip to the mountain with her uncle. She endures the eradication of her life and adjusts to life on the colony, becoming a caretaker of those whose condition had deteriorated well before the treatment was introduced. The secondary characters are drawn with minimal but meaningful strokes. The colony can’t erase who the lepers were before they came to the island, and their attempts to create a meaningful life on the island is the joy and tragedy of this book. No one is made a saint, however. Personalities are bruised and distorted. No one is who they would have been if they’d had a chance at a normal life. There is hope and there is courage, but there is also bitterness and failure and retreat. The prose is minimal but poetic, and I for one found it impossible to put the book down until I finished it. As bittersweet as the story is, it ends on a very sweet note.
I highly recommend this book. Also, he’ll be publishing a book based on his time in Palestine, so keep an eye out for that.