The White Pearl by Kate Furnivall
In 1941 Malaya, a local woman is hit by a car while walking, and dies at the scene. The driver is Constance Hadley, the British wife of a plantation owner and mother of a seven-year-old boy.
The opening scene encapsulates, in a few neat pages, the virtues and flaws that make reading The White Pearl such a discombobulating experience. While Furnivall has put great energy into setting her scene and conveying the socioeconomic, cultural and political complexities of the time and place, when it comes to language and story, she seems to not know when to stop.
Seconds before dying, the woman curses Connie, who, troubled and guilty, seeks out her two children, Maya and her twin brother Razak. The latter will come to play an role in the disintegration of Connie’s already moribund marriage, but the promise Furnivall instills in the character of Maya – that she loathes Connie and is plotting against her – comes to naught. The bid for vengeance simply trails off.
There may be good reason for that, however: the Japanese are advancing, and the novel commences under the threat of invasion and eventually evolves into a boys’- own-adventure story in which Connie, Nigel and their son Teddy flee with some acquaintances on their boat The White Pearl toward the beckoning safety of Singapore.
Do they make it? What happens in the interim? These are the plot’s most important questions, but Furnivall exhausts most of the overweighted 430 pages before she even starts to address them.
First, we experience life on a rubber plantation through Connie’s eyes. The product, referred to as ‘white gold’, is tremendously lucrative, and Nigel is extremely proud of his familial possession.
His dual devotion to productivity and appearances is juxtaposed by a singular lack of interest in his wife (for reasons semaphored to the reader if not apparent to her), though he is enamoured of his son. Connie yearns for home, and much of the novel is given over to her musings on the inhospitable environment: “. . . no one had warned her that it was a country of sweltering nights and fierce smells . . . of the stink of bad drains . . . of ferocious insects that would devour you alive, and of jungle sounds that haunted your dreams.”
Overpopulated and hyperkinetic, The White Pearl is bogged down by a trilogy’s-worth of plot. Infidelity, murder, double-crosses, surprise confrontations . . . it’s all here.
Imagination and research are Furnivall’s strong suits, but I wish she’d directed more energy toward the development of character. With all the people roaming in and out of the pages, not one is truly, fleshily human, either sufficiently villainous to provoke the reader’s ire or noble enough to make you care about their fate. In particular, Connie has the makings of a memorable heroine, but through all her travails remains somehow opaque.
For all that, Furnivall’s gift for evoking mood is remarkable, and she provides a rare fictional portrayal of an often-overlooked place in history at a time of profound disintegration.
2 / 5 stars: An historical novel that reads like a maximum-velocity fun-park ride.
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