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THE PEARL DIVER by Jeff Talarigo


by Jeff Talarigo

Pub Date: April 20th, 2004
ISBN: 0-385-51051-9
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

An impressionistic debut about a young Japanese pearl diver who is sent to a leper colony.

Nowadays considered primarily a disease of the tropics (where it has become increasingly rare), leprosy was a global scourge until quite recently: Talarigo’s story takes place on an island leprosarium off the coast of Japan in the years following WWII. Here, sealed off from all contact with the outside world, the confirmed cases are sent to begin their lives anew under the most terrible circumstances imaginable. The 19-year-old pearl diver who arrives in 1948 and takes the name Miss Fuji (all lepers in Japan at this time are declared legally dead and required to assume new identities in the colony) has only a mild case of leprosy, but she is disowned by her family all the same and committed to the island for life. There, she becomes a medical assistant in the clinic, a place that offers little more than massages (or abortions) by way of treatment. The tale is told in episodic vignettes that move lightly back and forth among the various patients and administrators. We meet Miss Min, a storyteller; Mr. Shirayam, a gardener; Miss Morikowa, a Christian; Mr. Nogami, a Communist; Mr. Oyama, an urn painter; and the pregnant Miss Matsu (who wants, against all regulations, to keep her baby). The dreadful background of Miss Fuji’s hopelessness is, if anything, intensified by the advent of new drugs capable of containing or reversing the disease—and by the stubborn refusal of the national health officials to authorize the discharge of arrested cases (like Miss Fuji’s) back to normal society. Her sense of isolation is made even worse by her ability, as a diver, to swim across the straits to the mainland whenever she wants to.

A keenly observed but rather lifeless portrait. So little happens that it’s difficult to stay involved, let alone interested, throughout the whole.