The Pearl by John Steinbeck : Review

The Pearl by John Steinbeck was on the recommended reading list when I was at school.

It’s the story of a pearl fisherman whose life changes forever when he discovers a large and valuable pearl.

Kino makes his living by diving for pearls. His life is tranquil. He lives with his wife Juana and their baby son Coyotito. They have a simple, peaceful life, existing from day to day.

Then, one day, a scorpion bites Coyotito. Kino and Juana are afraid for their baby son but they don’t have enough money for a doctor to visit. So, instead, Kino goes to see the doctor and offers to pay with seed pearls. But the doctor turns up his nose at the pearls saying that the payment is not enough.

When Kino returns home, Coyotito is already recovering but fate is about to intervene.

Kino discovers a large, precious pearl which opens up a chance for him to dream of a better future for his baby son.

Soon, the whole village is talking about Kino’s discovery. But his good fortune puts Kino and his family in danger.

Fate in The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Was it the scorpion that triggered misfortune? Or was it the pearl? Was it Kino’s failure to kill the scorpion on time? Or was his mistake simply to dream of a better future? Was he the victim of others? Or did he trigger his own misfortunes?

It is only when Kino returns the pearl to the ocean that the possibility of rediscovering tranquility is restored.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck was one of a number of short novels that we studied at school. On the Leaving Cert syllabus, the play that we studied was Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kino’s story echoes the famous words spoken by Gloucester in that play:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport.”

Leaving Cert Novels | Do you remember the ones you read?

When the exam results come out in August every year, do your thoughts go back to the Leaving Cert novels? Mine certainly do. While I loved English at school, like most of my classmates, I found the Leaving Cert novels difficult to appreciate. They were “study” and “study” was something to endure, not enjoy.

Seven Leaving cert novels

As far as I can remember, the seven novels on the syllabus at the time were:

A few years ago, I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and came to the conclusion that our class of 16 and 17 year-olds were too young to appreciate it. Similarly, reading The Great Gatsby as an adult is  more rewarding than reading it at school. And what’s true of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, is even more true of Evelyn Waugh.

A Handful of Dust

Re-reading A Handful of Dust this week, I’m surprised that it was on the syllabus. Perhaps we were a sheltered bunch but my classmates and I certainly didn’t have enough life experience to appreciate Waugh’s cynicism and satire. Nor had we the knowledge to understand the references to the decadence and decay of the years between the first and second world wars.

In case you need a reminder of the story, A Handful of Dust is about a married society couple — Tony and Brenda Last. They live in Tony’s family home, Hetton Abbey. Tony loves the house and estate but Brenda wants distraction. She finds it when she embarks on an affair with the dislikable John Beaver.  When the Lasts’ marriage breaks down, divorce is on the cards — a society divorce in the style of the period.

Satirical, bitter and funny, A Handful of Dust is rich with literary references. The theme is the disintegration of society. Waugh first published the novel in the 1930s. I read the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an introduction, footnotes and an alternative ending. The footnotes in the first chapter or two of this edition are distracting but there are fewer notes as the novel progresses and it quickly becomes an absorbing read.

Perhaps the point of enduring those Leaving Cert novels at school is the pleasure of enjoying them later when you have the maturity to appreciate them more.


A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man is an excellent title for Patrick Gale’s novel because this is a story about “goodness” and “perfection”. But don’t let the morality theme put you off.  This is also a story about a man whose experiences may move you to laughter and tears as his story unfolds.

Set in Penzance, the principal character is parish priest, Father Barnaby Johnson. The story is narrated by Johnson himself as well as by members of his family and community. The timeline is non-linear — which some readers don’t like — but each chapter adds layers to Johnson’s character.

Johnson is certainly “good” — even, perhaps, “perfectly” good — although that is a question for the reader to consider as the story unfolds.

Gale writes beautifully, creating richly imagined characters and rooting them in a believable community and place. If you read his earlier novel, Notes from an Exhibition, you’ll recognise artist Rachel Kelly whose work and daughter Morwenna appear in A Perfectly Good Man.
A Perfectly Good Man begins with the suicide of a young man where Johnson finds himself unexpectedly anointing the victim. It proceeds moving across and back across time, tracing Johnson’s relationships with family and community from his own perspective as well as from the perspective of other characters, before ending with Johnson at age 8. Between those two points lie a lifetime of experience — joys, disappointments, failings, crises of faith. Warm, human, funny, thought-provoking and sad. I loved this novel. It’s left me impatient to read more Patrick Gale.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of this review.