Merrimon Book Reviews

Medieval leper bell
Photo taken by Cnyborg at the museum Ribes Vikinger, Ribe, Denmark

Kitayama-Jūhachikento, a Japanese historic sanatorium for Hansen's disease patients. In 1243, Ninshō (Buddhist priest of Saidai-ji) organized Kitayama-Jūhachikento.

Gerhard Armauer Hansen: Norwegian physician, remembered for his identification of the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae in 1873 as the causative agent of leprosy.

From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Pearl Diver
The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo
by Jeff Talarigo

The Artifacts of a life in a Japanese leper sanitarium 
On Shodo Island in 1948, a girl dreams suddenly end.  Once she dreamed of pearl diving, the one place where she was herself as she escaped the expectations of her family.  In a moment, her entire life is gone.  The appearance of two small spots brings shame to her family and lessens their social and economic position.  The young girl goes into hiding only to be arrested and removed from society by laws meant to isolate the contagious disease of leprosy.  Transported to a remote and isolated area, the Nagashima leprosarium, she must forget everything: her past, her family and even her name, a name now erased from the family records She must choose a new name for her new life.  Her past is now dead.  Stripped of everything she ever knew, the woman begins her life anew known as Miss Fuji.  Although new drug discoveries arrest the disease, she lives out her life helping other patients, massaging them and caring for those more harmed than her.  Through reaching out to the other patients, she rediscovers the part within herself that yearns for freedom and connection.  

Jeff Talarigo's THE PEARL DIVER looks into the life of a leper colony in Japan through the cataloguing of the artifacts left behind for posterity.  Through the artifacts, the life of Miss Fujii emerges.  Each artifact has a story to tell.  Some tell of the advancement of history.  Others items tell of the horrifying cruel effects on patients as Japan's Leprosy Prevention laws encourage not only the segregation of patients sanitariums where forced sterilization and abortions are routine.  Some items as simple as a teacup, a map, a badge or a tide table leave behind evidence and stories of compassion and community between the patients.  Although THE PEARL DIVER clues the reader into some of the political realities of Japan's policy towards leprosy and the political figures on the outside of the sanitarium, THE PEARL DIVER focuses on the intimate details of the inner life of the patients and their isolated world.  Prefaced and postcripted by life after the height of the sanitarium's activity, the artifacts remaining provide the heart of a inner transformation that is both inner within the life of a secluded woman and also a life that expands outward beyond herself through sometimes quiet but daring actions.  THE PEARL DIVER explores solitude and community, isolation, and the bridges individuals create between one another.  Jeff Talarigo's prose has an elegance in its beautiful, emotional simplicity and precisely connected images.  An image of a map becomes the map of not only a place but an inner journey.

The rich character of Miss Fuji creates a very emotional story.  Her innocence makes one feel the shock of isolation, her compassion towards others inspire, and her yearning to reach beyond her world uplifts.  Once a young diver challenging herself to the depth in her pearl diving, she now faces other challenges, challenges that make her into the woman she becomes through her actions day in, day out.  At times heart-breaking and thought-provoking, THE PEARL DIVER is a novel that leaves the reader with a sense of hope.

If the topic of leprosy makes you shy away from this book, don't let it.  The most shocking elements of this story do not center around grotesque descriptions of the disease but rather the treatment of the patients by those responsible for their care.  Certainly, Jeff Talarigo does not sanitize the difficulties of Hansen's disease itself, but in the midst of the disease and isolation, the actions outsiders responsible for the patients' health and welfare are by far the most harrowing aspects of the novel.  In the midst of this cruelty, THE PEARL DIVER looks into the humanity of the patients and the interconnections between them.  THE PEARL DIVER is a novel that looks into the worst of humanity and yet leaves the reader with an inspiring hope both individual and a hope lived through history.

Publisher: Anchor (April 2005)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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