Set in the 1960’s but seeming more appropriate to decades before that, Mother of Pearl is a sort of Southern Gothic mashup. It features a love affair between near relations, a half-Indian seeress, the town slut, a self-educated African-American man, and some other stereotypes. It is energetically written but sometimes so floridly that I wanted to put it down. Still, it captured my attention enough to give it a mild recommendation. For a novel that starts out dark and unusual, it ends up being surprisingly sentimental and unlikely.
Even Grade is an African-American factory worker. He recently helped his older neighbor Canaan after a teenage white boy hit him in the head with a bottle. His deepest sadness comes from the knowledge that his mother abandoned him as a baby and he was raised in an orphanage.
Valuable Korner, a white teenager, was also left by her mother, the town slut. Her mother disappeared after her birth and left her to be raised by her grandmother Luvenia, returning just before Luvenia died. Since then, Valuable has shared the house with her mother and whichever man she is with.
Barely in puberty, Valuable is about to turn her life-long friendship with neighbor Jackson into a full-blown love affair. What neither of them knows is that they are half brother and sister. The adults who are aware of this seem criminally oblivious, except one.
That one is Joody Two Sun, a half-Indian healer and seeress who lives in a hut by the creek. She and Even are lovers. When Valuable and Jackson come to consult her, she can immediately see their relationship and fate but chooses to say nothing.
Joleb, a friend of Jackson, lives with his father, who is as dumb as a post, and his older brother Burris, who tries to see God by standing on a railway trestle as the train approaches. Their mother also lives with them, but she has been in a vegetative state since Joleb was born. He feels closer to Grace, an African-American woman who cares for his mother and nursed him when he was a baby, than he does to his own family.
I had some problems with this novel, mostly involving the unlikelihood that Valuable, with her attitude toward her mother’s affairs, would plunge into her own love affair as soon as she hits puberty, especially as naive as she is. But then again, if she didn’t, there would be no novel. In addition, I can say no more, but the ending of the novel is very unlikely, ignoring legalities, for one.
Still, I enjoyed this book, especially liking the African-American characters, who seem better defined than the white ones. Valuable’s Aunt Bea, who with her lesbian lover Neva takes her in when her mother finally leaves town, seems to have no personality at all. Neva definitely has one but it is mostly destructive. Joleb, although he gets more interesting, seems like a cartoon character at times. And frankly, the two star-crossed lovers are pretty much cardboard figures.
I was interested particularly in Even and Grace. Joody is too much over the top at times, and Canaan only seems to be there to anchor Grace.
Readers commented that they were not taken with the book until about 100 pages in. That was my experience as well. In fact, if I hadn’t read those comments, I may not have kept reading the book.