Fortune favours the brave . . .
It is 1886 and the Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them in Bannin Bay beyond stories of shimmering pearls and shells the size of soup plates – the very things her father has promised will make their fortune. Ten years later, as the pearling ships return after months at sea, Eliza waits impatiently for her father to return with them. When his lugger finally arrives however, Charles Brightwell, master pearler, is declared missing. Whispers from the townsfolk point to mutiny or murder, but Eliza knows her father and, convinced there is more to the story, sets out to uncover the truth. She soon learns that in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, answers can cost more than pearls, and must decide just how much she is willing to pay, and how far she is willing to go, to find them.
This incredible debut is richly atmospheric from the get go, throwing us straight into the strangeness of 19th Century Western Australia as if it is an alien landscape. In fact that’s exactly what it is for the Brightwell family, particularly Eliza whose childhood eyes we see it through for the the first time as, in a particularly disgusting parody of baptism, a bucket of fish guts is thrown into her face. Of course the fisherman apologises for the accident, but we’re left wondering if it’s anything but as he says the words ‘welcome to Bannin Bay’. It foreshadows that immediate imbalance between those who do the work and those who aim to make the money. Eliza’s father has been full of dreams, not just of pearls, but the pearl shells to be turned into buttons, hat pins and pistol handles. Yet their unsuitability for this rough and ready environment can be seen as soon as they arrive in the fine clothing they must keep lifted away from the red earth, especially when compared to the stevedores dirty vests and cut off trousers. Eliza describes her mother as ‘a dragonfly, once resplendent, marooned in a bucket of old slop water.’ Delicate Victorian ladies are not built for this environment that stinks of sweat, fish guts and the mineral tang of sea kelp. With this alien landscape the author creates a vivid backdrop for the incredible historical detail of her story, whilst also creating a mythic, almost fairy tale quality to the story.
Only ten years after the prologue we meet an older Eliza, who’s wiser to the ways of the Bay and has developed into a interesting character. Women are either categorised as polite society -‘white glove wearers’ – or harlots and it’s a source of irritation to most women in the community that Eliza refuses to be either. She is ploughing her own furrow and whereas her friend Min’s childhood dreams develop, from escapades on the high seas to the type of sailor she might marry, Eliza still craves the adventure. She can see no use for a husband, although she doesn’t deny an interest in men, which is quite a scandalous notion even if her main interest is the contents of his library. Eliza’s knowledge of sailing and pearl diving is forensic in its detail and through exploring with her father she has developed a keen interest in the areas flora and fauna too. She is quite unlike the respectable women who still look like wedding cakes in the impossible heat. Her father has been on a voyage for the past three months and a lonely Eliza has been looking forward to his return, but as she sits and waits doubt starts to set in about whether the ship is returning. The light is fading as his lugger appears on the horizon, but her stomach fills with dread when she realises something is wrong. The ship’s flag is at half-mast. When her brother Thomas emerges she learns that her father is gone. While Thomas rushes to secure the business Eliza is left to find out the truth and while she’s told he went overboard, there are also tales of mutiny and murder. Eliza has to visit the sergeant to convince him that she suspects their father’s death was not an accident. Sergeant Archibald Parker is an unpleasant racist and his immediate action is to arrest aboriginal man Billy Balaari, but Eliza is told that Billy wasn’t even on the boat. When Billy escapes, the sergeant is completely focused on finding him, leaving Eliza to do the detective work herself. She finds her father’s diary and eventually sets sail on Father McVeigh’s lugger Moonlight with Axel Kramer and an aboriginal boy called Knife, determined to find the truth of what happened.
I wasn’t surprised to find a very seedy underbelly to the trade where Eliza’s father had hoped the build the family fortune. Where incomers make large amounts of money, there is always exploitation and in this case the workers have a very tough working life. Of course it’s the native Australians who are exploited the most and the author doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to portraying the terrible treatment they receive. Aboriginal families are torn apart as the strong are enslaved for labour on the Pearler’s boats, usually as pearl divers, the most dangerous job on board. The sheer weight of their gear is terrifying as they don lead boots and copper chest plates. It felt so claustrophobic to imagine them sinking slowly to the bottom of the sea, with only a line connecting them to the ship above. The relief of being winched back to the surface must have been tempered by the danger of the bends, caused by the pressure of resurfacing too quickly, forcing organs upward in the body leaving the diver dead or ‘agonisingly crippled’. It made me feel a little bit anxious as I was reading their potential fates. If this wasn’t enough, aboriginals were treated as worthless, beaten and even killed without consequence. Eliza has to negotiate her way through the community’s corruption, violence, blackmail and the criminal elements of the pearling business. All the while reading her father’s diary for clues and guiding us to a cast of fascinating characters, some of which are based on historical figures. I loved Eliza’s early feminist stance and her sense of adventure, not to mention the gripping twists and turns that pull you even deeper into the story. This is a fantastic debut full of life and death, just like it’s setting. The richness and depth of her storytelling marks Lizzie Pook out as a talented writer I’ll keep watching out for in the future.
Published by Mantle Books 3rd March 2022
Meet The Author
Lizzie Pook is an award-winning journalist and travel writer contributing to The Sunday
Times, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Condé Nast Traveller and more. Her assignments have taken her to some of the most remote parts of the planet, from the uninhabited east coast of Greenland in search of roaming polar bears, to the foothills of the Himalayas to track endangered snow leopards.
She was inspired to write Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, her debut novel, after spending time in north-western Australia researching the dangerous and fascinating pearl-diving industry. She lives in London.
You can find Lizzie on Twitter and Instagram: @LizziePook.