The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

I narrowed my eyes, overwhelmed with the feeling that all adults are incompetent lunatics.” (p. 163)

I should preface this review by noting that my copy of The Pearl Thief came from the publisher in exchange for a review, by way of Nafiza, who was thoroughly determined to ensure that I had this latest book by an author I much admire. Quite independently, Yash conspired to the same end. Much as I wish to thank Penguin Random House for sending out a (hardbound!) book, I would like even more to thank Nafiza and Yash. Don’t I have the kindest friends?

Warning: minor spoilers.

June, 1938.

Julie Beaufort-Stuart returns for one last summer holiday at Strathfearn, her grandfather’s Scottish estate. Soon the big old house will be sold, and Julie’s childhood will vanish with it. But there are dangerous currents beneath the surface at Strathfearn that are not ready to let her go.

A man is missing, presumed murdered, and many locals are blaming the McEwens, a Traveller family who have made camp at Strathfearn as long as Julie can remember. She is determined to prove her friends innocent. But before she can get to the bottom of the mystery, Julie finds herself caught tight in a net woven of old grudges, intriguing strangers, buried secrets and rare, glimmering river pearls.

The Pearl Thief is Elizabeth Wein’s first mystery, and it is packed. Overtly the narrative is a great lost-and-found story. Lost: one scholar; found: half a corpse; lost: Julie’s memories; found: portions of the same; lost, pearls that might never have existed except in Julie’s imagination; found: … I have a sneaking suspicion that several undergrad papers could be written about the balance of lost and found, or loss and gain in this book. In the very best tradition of mystery novels, The Pearl Thief is as much or more about the characters and their setting (time and place) as it is about the puzzle that so perplexes the police.

Julie, spoiled, extraordinary Julie, comes to Strathfearn three days early, having made her own travel arrangements. She spends most of those three days unconscious in the hospital after somebody clonks her on the head and dumps her near the camp of the McEwens, a family of Scottish Travellers. Notwithstanding the long connection between Julie’s family and the McEwens, Julie had never met Ellen and Euan McEwen until they visit her in the hospital, and she becomes determined to win Ellen’s friendship. Shortly after, Julie’s brother Jamie arrives, and so begins the summer in earnest.

One of my main complaints about detective stories is that many authors, even the most acclaimed (and I’m looking at you, Agatha Christie), don’t examine their own approaches to people. No matter how clever the plot or witty the dialogue, it is exceedingly difficult to relax into a good whodunnit when, for example, minor or supporting characters are described in sickeningly racist terms, when all women but the love interest are manipulative shrews, when queer characters – if they exist – are so stereotyped they are unrecognizable as individual and probable human beings. The Pearl Thief stands as an antidote to that sort of poison: every instance of power and privilege is ruthlessly interrogated. Julie, our beloved Julie, intelligent, free-minded, and outraged by injustice, is as guilty as anyone else – and everyone else, even characters who are Othered, openly Others others. Julie is at times horrifying in her thoughtlessness and cruelty, and she comes to realize it and to re-form. SO MANY forms of power, prejudice, and privilege are examined in this story. It is beautiful.

“Let me go!”

Ellen held me in a grip of iron. She murmured softly in my ear.

Julie.”

I stopped struggling, breathing hard.

“Whisht. Hust. Now, Julie.”

The bus pulled away, and she let me go.

I stood staring after it, raging with impotent anger, one hand pressed to my burning cheek.

“That’s how it always goes,” Ellen said. “You have to playact. You have to bite your tongue and pretend you dinnae care. If you’d hit her back you’d have had the bus driver jump out and knock you silly.” (p. 156-157)

Not surprisingly, The Pearl Thief is a bildungsroman, too. We get to see Julie becoming Julie, and the forces (external and internal) that have a hand in that shaping of a person. Jamie, Ellen, and Euan – their friendship, siblingship, and *ahem* other kinds of ships are among the closest and most directly influential relationships for this summer. Julie’s mother and grandmother are pillars of strength and grace – and occasionally a little polite lawbreaking – during the enormous change that is the selling of a family estate and its conversion into a boy’s school, as is Mary Kinnard, the librarian, who loves books and the study of antiquities, and who has a university degree despite the triple disadvantage of being a woman, being deaf, and having Treacher Collins syndrome.

We get to see Julie discovering her own abilities and the limitations society places on her – and how to get around those limitations. There is a tremendous amount of deceit and manipulation. Also girls rescuing girls. Also siblings being siblings, both akin and with widely divergent reactions to the outside forces arrayed for or against them.

Also, many kisses.*

Readers who loved Code Name Verity will pick up snippets in The Pearl Thief that enrich their previous knowledge of Julie (also! Jamie before his incarnation as The Pobble Who Had No Toes); readers who are meeting Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart for the first time will find that this story stands fully on its own.

Highly recommended.

* Those kisses! There will definitely be undergrad papers examining the kisses and Julie’s growing awareness of her sexual/romantic power, and of the fact that maybe there isn’t a difference between kissing boys and kissing girls, so far as she is concerned.

(You want a list of power, prejudices, and privileges examined? Here’s one off the top of my head:

  • age over youth
  • beauty and genetic conditions (eg. mandibulofacial dysostosis, aka Treacher Collins syndrome)
  • ability and disability
  • economic wealth/poverty
  • authority (eg. police and public officials)
  • titles and family (the gentry)
  • land/landlessness
  • Travellers as scapegoats
  • women’s bodies as innately lewd and rude; obsession with virginity
  • pressure toward marriage (a proper marriage)
  • formal education
  • social worth determined by appearances (reputation, clothing, clothing, clothing)
  • gender (the patriarchy – the kyriarchy)
  • violence and who has impunity
  • possessions and approaches to ownership
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