The Last Pearl Fisher in Scotland by Julia Stuart
I have really fond memories of reading Julia Stuart’s earlier novel – Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (reviewed here), which was gentle and touching with some delightful comedic interludes. Its portrayal of a couple being driven apart by grief over their dead son was charmingly done. Would her latest capture the same feelings?
Again, we have a portrait of a family in crisis. Brodie and Elspeth live in a Scottish village. Elspeth has several small jobs, trying to keep bread on the table while Brodie carries on his family tradition of pearl fishing the mussels of the Highland rivers. Brodie is the last licensed pearl fisher, the mussels are suffering from over-fishing, tourism and pollution from run-off, and mature shells with pearls in are getting rarer. Their daughter Maggie is a darling, born with a deformed arm, she needs a new prosthesis which they can’t afford. Money pressures are rocking their marriage. Elspeth is long-suffering, and Brodie is a man of big but repressed emotions, which will explode over the course of the novel.
He turned towards the soft sleeping shape of Elspeth, fingers curled in front of those lips that had once sought his. It hadn’t always been like this. They used to be like sea otters, holding hands as they slept so they wouldn’t drift away from one another. (p3)
He needs just one more pearl to complete a necklace for his wife that he’s been working on for years. When Brodie goes out that day, sure he’ll find ‘that’ pearl, but events will overtake him putting everything at risk, for Cameron Wallace has come back to town and he will be the unwitting catalyst for it all along with Maggie’s desire to keep her parents together. An old flame, Cameron comes into the tea shop where Elspeth works:
‘So why did you come home?’
‘My marriage. It didn’t work out. The kids have moved back to Blairgowrie with their mother. I wanted to be near them.’
He was fiddling with the edge of the laminated menu. It needed wiping.
‘They’re fragile things,’ she said.
He raised his eyes. ‘Children or marriages?’
Stuart wryly captures village life and the world arriving on its doorstep really well. Other characters in the village fulfill all the types you need in a novel of this kind and Stuart has good fun with them. From the pub regulars to the boss of the jam factory, not to mention Elspeth’s sister Alina, the clever plot brings out the worst and the best in them all.
This is one of those heart-warming novels, full of bittersweet comedy. It manages to be whimsical when needed without being twee in the cosy way of Hamish MacBeth (see here) for instance. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (reviewed here) which I loved, against which The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland holds its own well, especially as we have the glorious setting of the Scottish Highlands.
I mustn’t forget to mention the environmental message about the plight of the pearl mussel and the author makes it clear in an afterword that pearl fishing was banned in the UK in 1998 and the the pearl mussel has full protection. (As an aside, although she writes mainly about seashells, I’d recommend Helen Scales’ book Spirals in Time which I reviewed here for Shiny if you’re interested in shells at all.)
The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland was a little more melodramatic than Balthazar Jones, but it was fun, satisfying and easy to read – in fact I devoured it! (8.5/10)
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Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine
Julia Stuart, The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland (Vintage, 25 August 2016), paperback original, 352 pages.