Book review: The Last Pearl byÂ Leah Fleming
Pearls, the bewitching, iridescent gemstones reputed to be either the bringers of luck and great happiness'¦ or the bearers of terrible ill fortune.
When a special pearl, a large and perfect, rainbow-glinting ‘gem of gems,’ is found inside a battered and twisted mussel shell on the muddy bed of the Tay river in Perthshire in 1879, it is set to forge the destinies of two young people.
Lancashire-born Leah Fleming, well-loved author of a string of compelling novels including The Girl Under the Olive Tree and The Captain’s Daughter, casts her storytelling net over the intriguing pearl industry in a beautiful, sweeping saga of family, revenge, ambition and desire.
Spanning generations, continents, the rivers of Scotland and the mighty Mississippi, The Last Pearl is a cleverly woven and emotionally-charged story of both the hardships of life in the 19th century and the fascinating process of fishing, trading, stringing and selling pearls.
Jem Baillie’s dad Sam knows that finding the perfect mussel pearl could make a man his fortune so when he finds a great white pearl buried in the mud of a tributary of the Tay river near their Scottish village, he tells his son it is a gift of nature, ‘God’s bounty and not to be squandered.’
They name the pearl Queenie, the queen of the river, and Sam stashes it away to ensure that Jem receives a good education to escape the hardships of working on the land of the local laird.
But the pearl is a secret between father and son and when Sam dies, 16-year-old Jem is horrified to discover that his mother found the rare gem and has been talked into selling it for a song to a rogue travelling dealer.
Determined to find the dealer and take back his birthright, Jem embarks on a mission of revenge which takes him across the sea to America.
Meanwhile, in the poor, Irish quarter of York, teenager Greta Costello must rely on her wits to survive. She lives with her widowed mother and two siblings in damp, rented rooms but finds refuge from grinding poverty as a Saturday girl for an old city jeweller, Saul Abrahams.
Greta’s keen eye for detail, her long, skilled fingers and natural appreciation of beauty persuade Saul to train her as a pearl stringer and when he dies, her new skills lead to a job at Ebenezer Slinger’s thriving Pearl Emporium in the city.
But the gifts that have helped her escape the backs streets of York and create a new life she could never have dreamed of will also bring tough choices and heartache. Has Greta got the strength and foresight to find the true happiness that has so far eluded her?
Like the pearls at the heart of her story, Leah Fleming’s captivating cast of characters bring life, colour and vitality to this moving, multi-stranded tale which is packed with romance, drama, double-dealing and some unexpected twists and turns.
As Greta and Jem find their lives transformed by fate and circumstance, they are each forced to reassess what is most important to them… ambition and success, or family and contentment.
Can Greta, determined to forge a new life for herself wherever that may take her, peel back the protective shell she has wrapped around her life and her emotions to discover the warmth that lies within, or is she destined to cut herself off from her only chance of real love?
A fabulous story of people, places and pearls from a master storyteller…
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)