Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, the debut historical mystery by Lizzie Pook, is a surprise, full of twists and turns with a determined female lead character who defies 19th century conventions to find the murderer of her father.
The gritty, sometimes disgusting descriptions of the pearler’s living conditions are vivid and not for the faint-hearted. Set in an 1896 at Bannin Bay, a poor Australian pearl fishing settlement on the edge of the coast, the settlers are surrounded by indigenous people and their lands. When her father’s pearling lugger, the White Starling, returns from a long sea trip without him, Eliza Brightwell is told her father Charles disappeared from his boat overnight and is assumed drowned. Her brother Thomas, under pressure to keep the family business out debt, departs immediately to the nearby town of Cossack to sell his catch to traders. Alone, Eliza refuses to accept her father is dead but when she asks questions, is advised to accept the inevitable.This is a raw town of crime, racism, jealousy, blackmail and abuse. A detailed examination of the available facts, and a mysterious note she finds in her father’s diary, lead Eliza to places she cannot go. Fettered by conventions of the time, Eliza soon realises she needs a male companion to enter the disreputable parts of town. An outsider herself she chooses another outsider, German itinerant worker Axel Kramer, to help her. He can gain admittance to places where she should not be seen or is barred from entering. Alternating with Eliza’s investigations are two other passages – the hunt for Aboriginal crewman Balarri who is automatically assumed guilty of murder, and passages from her father’s diary in which he writes nature observations and notes about his pearl shelling business.
The murder story takes place in 1896 but we also see flashbacks ten years earlier to 1886 when the Brightwell family – Eliza, her parents and brother, plus Uncle Willem and Aunt Martha – arrive in Bannin Bay from England, planning to become wealthy fishers of pearl shell. Pook places clues everywhere so don’t ignore these shorter sections.
I didn’t settle into this story until the second half. The first part establishes the setting – the village of Bannin Bay – with such gritty realism that the descriptions of the climate, mould, insects, smells and unpleasant people dominated everything else. There are also intricate descriptions of the industry of pearl fishing. This meant I was slow to connect with Eliza, other than that she is unconventional. But when she and Axel take a lugger to search the remote islands beyond Bannin Bay, to the Lucettes, Cockatoos, Rosellas and Nevermores, the story becomes more dynamic. Moving the action away from smelly Bannin adds air to story and removes conventions from Eliza and Axel. Knife, their young crewman, is also an intriguing character who is under-used.
This is a complex and ambitious story for a debut and Pook is an author worth watching. It’s a pity that at times the story felt weighed down by Australian history and the treatment of the indigenous population. The book is clearly founded on solid historical research but at times it felt that the pace of the story and the characterisation suffered in need of a lighter hand with research.
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MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER by @LizziePook #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Q6 via @SandraDanby