Washington Square Press, 2000
In this world of transient fads and media hype, books endure. One can discover and enjoy a book written decades, even centuries ago. Time does not diminish the impact of a great story.
I happened on Mother of Pearl at a used book sale. It was cheap enough that I didn’t spend much time debating. I just tossed it into my basket with the other dozen volumes I’d found. I didn’t realize I’d acquired a treasure until maybe a year later, when I began reading.
Mother of Pearl is a complex, lyrical, emotionally intense novel that doesn’t really fit into any genre category. Set in the small town of Petal, Mississippi in the mid nineteen fifties, it evokes a strong sense of place. Yet at the same time the conflicts and themes Ms. Haynes explores are universal.
It’s a bit difficult to summarize the plot of Mother of Pearl. Many events occur during its 500 or so pages, but the book is driven by the characters and their interactions. Central to the book is fourteen year old Valuable Korner, the precocious daughter of the town slut and an unknown father. She has grown up with her best friend Jackson McLain, but puberty has changed their relationship, bringing dangerous and confusing desires.
Meanwhile Even Grade, a black man from the next state, settles in Petal. A serious, intelligent sort, he wins the love of local witchy woman Joody TwoSun, who lives in the forest by the creek. Joody can read people, but she can’t read Even. That’s one reason she loves him. She can see that Valuable is headed for tragedy. However, knowledge doesn’t necessarily give you the power to change someone’s fate.
Then there’s elderly Canaan Mosley, the self-educated janitor of the Petal library, who has been working for years on his “thesis”, entitled "The Reality of the Negro", and wealthy, cautious Neva, Jackson’s lesbian aunt, who lives with her frivolous partner Beatrice in a forbidding mansion near the river and nurses her secrets. And sleek, dark-skinned Grace, competent, calm, spending her life in service to white folks while nursing her own dreams. And teenaged Joleb, Jackson’s hapless sidekick, who finds a sort of wisdom in madness.
Each character in Mother of Pearl is vivid, real, and multi-faceted. Though their world could hardly be more different than mine, I felt that in some sense I understood them. As the strands of history and emotion entangle and connect them, I found myself swept along, like twigs in the River Leaf at flood.
Ms. Hayne’s prose is beautiful and evocative. She excels both at description and at dialogue. In particular, I loved her portrayal of the growing attraction between Valuable and Jackson, and its ultimate consummation. Teenage sex is a forbidden theme in erotica, of course, but perfectly permissible in literature. In this case, the book pulled me into their desperate confusion, making me feel the breathless, scary exhilaration of first love.
Mother of Pearl is not an easy book to read, categorize or review. Readers on Amazon have ranked it from puzzled or frustrated one-stars to ecstatic five-stars. The novel doesn’t flinch from darkness. It includes some violence, both human and natural. It deals with difficult topics. Although it’s a realistic book, it shimmers with hidden magic. Perhaps this is the overarching theme—that the world is simultaneously painful and full of wonder.
Really, I’m having a hard time conveying how much I loved this book, or why. I guess you need to read it yourself.