No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, December 25, 2017

2017/105: The Pearl Thief -- Elizabeth Wein

What's your proper work, Julie? I would like to be a theatrical escape artist, I think, like Houdini, or a circus owner like Bertram Mills. I want to dazzle people and be applauded for it. I am good at it, and it is thrilling. Walking a tightrope when you've had too much to drink – dangerous and wonderful. [loc. 1992]
A prequel, of sorts, to Code Name Verity: the heroine of that novel, Julie Beaufort-Stuart, is fifteen in The Pearl Thief, returning to her ancestral home for one last visit before the house is sold. It's a time for farewells, not least to the McEwens, a family of travellers who -- despite the class disparity -- have been part of Julie's life ever since she can remember. Now they're being hounded by the local council, and blamed for the disappearance of archivist Dr Hugh Housman. Julie may have been the last person to see Housman alive, and immediately after that someone hit her on the head ... possibly the same person who's stolen a jar of freshwater pearls.

Not just a whodunnit (though that aspect of the novel is well-structured and kept me guessing) but also a fascinating depiction of an interesting character. Julie never does anything by halves: not only does she kiss a girl, she kisses a traveller girl. (She's also mistaken for one, for 'a dirty tinker', in the hospital after her head injury.) She kisses a man, too. And takes a friend to see a variety show featuring 'Le Sphinx', who is black and wears a white satin dress, and tells Julie 'I'm a more exciting performer as a woman'.

Julie is a likeable, courageous and energetic character, and Wein gives us the sense of a childhood among books: Julie is reading the latest novel by Lisette Romilly (from Wein's novel Rose Under Fire) and is told -- delightfully for Sayers fans -- that she gets her ideas about crime scenes from 'a Harriet Vane novel'. She apparently spent weeks as a child going around in a kilt and insisting that she was David Balfour. And it's possible that her heroics have their roots in literature.

The Pearl Thief is quite different from, much lighter than, the other Elizabeth Wein novels that I've read: but it has the same deft touch, a varied cast of female characters, and a sense of a young woman finding a place for herself in the world. Delightful.

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