“Sunlight falls in bars and spots through the trees. As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs, Pearl grins, thinking she hears laughter, and raises her arms to the just glimpsed sky. These are just some of the reasons she come to the woods.”
You know when you read those kinds of books that give you all the wrong feels (The Lolita’s/We Need To Talk About Kevin’s of the world). Well this is one of those.
I find it really difficult when I’m reading to detach myself from the protagonist, I always want to like them, for them to be right and to succeed in their endeavors and usually this works out quite well for me because usually main characters are typically the heroes of the story. But Pearl isn’t, not really anyway. We follow Pearl through particular moments in her life, each memory focused entirely on her but in the third person, and each story only fills one page. And you wouldn’t think that one page of not even particularly small text would be able to build up the kind of tension and foreboding that the author somehow manages to and because each page is so compelling, I had to finish it in one sitting.
So when we first meet Pearl she is very young, how young specifically I couldn’t say, but evidently old enough to have a highly inappropriate sexual attraction to her father. In the start of the book, we don’t know much about her mother at all, other than she never seems to be watching the children when she probably should be, but in time it becomes clear that she is increasingly unstable, subject to episodes and takes them out on her children. We know that Pearl has a very tiny brother, who she calls The Blob and as she grows Pearl spends her days either cooped up inside of, or being pushed outside of her dysfunctional and neglected home by her mother. She lurks about in hedges scheming and bullying other children, or she is in the wood, all the while her lust for her father and hatred of her mother intensifying. Pearl forms equally dysfunctional relationships with ‘friends’ who seem to love and fear her with equal passion and somehow, even when she’s weird and crazy and violent, I can’t help but sympathize with the child. Pearl is an island, her parent’s provide her with no structure, no comfort, no example and this book is an insight of what might become of a kid when boundaries and rules do not exist in their life. Deborah Kay Davies makes a study of a child in her most feral form, she’s sexual (even when she isn’t sexualized and has no words for the feelings she has), she’s vicious, impulsive, limitless, fearless, violent but also intensely loving. At first I thought perhaps Pearl would grow to be psychopathic for all her inability to socialize in the same way that her peers do, but she isn’t, she’s wild, and just has no patience for social structure in the same way that an undomesticated animal would. If she wants something, she takes or demands it, if she wants to fight, she fights, she is a force of total dominant power among her ‘gang’, an alpha who rules in a most primitive manner, who refuses to take offered food from anyone, and who only ever feels freedom and contentment out away from it all in the woods.
There are so many things I loved about this, even though it’s dark and disturbing and made me highly uncomfortable, I couldn’t put it down. I love the ability that literature has to pick off the well healed scabs from social taboos and leave the reader to deal with things we aren’t typically encouraged to think about. Pearl stands out as an extreme example of untamed childhood emotion I found her fascinating.