Saturday, September 17, 2022

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter by Lizzie Pook takes readers to colonial Australia with an adventurous mystery

Bannin Bay, a pearling village on the northwestern Australian coast, is a place of extremes, which debut novelist Lizzie Pook describes in abundant sensory detail. The redness of the soil in the blinding sunlight, the insistent strength of the tides, birds’ loud cries, and the ripe odors of seaside muck and decay are a shock to the system for Eliza Brightwell, daughter of a master pearler. The rampant exploitation affects her equally. White people of English origin are a minority in this multicultural land, but they hold the wealth and power.

By 1896, Eliza and her family have lived in Bannin Bay (a fictional locale based on Broome) for a decade. After spending six weeks alone while her father, Charles, and older brother, Thomas, are away at sea, Eliza is distraught when the White Starling, the lugger her father captains on his pearling expedition, returns to port without him. There was no blood or signs of a struggle; he simply vanished one night.

Eliza refuses to believe he’s dead, and the lack of a body doesn’t prevent the corrupt local constable from accusing Charles’s Aboriginal crewman, Balarri, of murder. Balarri wasn’t even on board at the time, so Eliza knows he’s innocent. She stops at nothing to discover what really happened, not only to bring her father home but also to clear Balarri’s name.

Congratulations to Lizzie Pook on crafting a mystery plot that feels logical in retrospect but is nearly impossible to work out in advance. What’s more, the gradual revelation of what may have happened, laid out carefully via clues such as Charles’s diary entries and Eliza’s snooping excursions, reveals much about people’s character.

Like her late mother, Eliza is neither a “white-glove wearer or a common harlot,” but though she doesn’t fit into any pre-set feminine category, there are places in Bannin Bay she can’t investigate alone. Enter Axel Kramer, a newly arrived German-born businessman who strikes a deal with Eliza: he’ll help her track down her father if she shows him around Bannin Bay. This situation may be realistic for the time and place, but Axel's presence feels too convenient all the same.

Many secondary characters, from Eliza’s disabled uncle Willem to her feckless brother Thomas to her half-Chinese, half-Scottish friend Min, a prospector’s daughter forced to fend for herself as best she can, round out the cast with more than walk-on roles. The physical hazards of pearl-diving are deadly, especially for the divers – who are mostly nonwhite. In a place that values human life so little, the narrative raises lucid questions about moral complicity: whether anyone who benefits from the cruel, corrupt pearling industry can be a decent person. As Min asks Eliza, “What can good even mean in a place like this?” In a well-plotted story that beckons with adventure, environmental beauty, and rich character development, these and other probing issues are thoughtfully explored.

The novel was published by Simon & Schuster in the US in June 2022; I reviewed it from Edelweiss. The UK publisher is Mantle, and it's also out from Viking Australia.

2 comments:

  1. Our book club is reading books set in Australia this cycle, so I'll pass this one along - sounds good!

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    1. This would be a great choice - so much to discuss!

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