If you’ve had it with “stunning” first novels about how hard it is to mate in Manhattan, The Pearl Diver offers something meatier to chew on. I don’t want to call Jeff Talarigo’s terrific debut a political novel, because it holds up splendidly as a great yarn. Still, this tautly written tale — inspired by real or imagined artifacts from a leprosy museum — of a woman banished to a leper colony in postwar Japan simmers with quiet outrage not just at the horror of difference that prevails in a society built on conformity, but at the near-universal impulse to strip the sick and outcast of all that makes them human. When a fiercely independent young pearl diver who loves her work discovers the telltale signs of the disease on her body, she tries to hide but is caught and shipped off to the island of Nagashima, where, like every other patient, she loses not only her possessions but her identity (she even has to rename herself) and all contact with her family, who discard her as a source of shame.
With vivid specificity, The Pearl Diver tells the story of “Miss Fuji”’s gradual immersion in the life of the leper colony, with its stringent, often arbitrary rules, its indignities large and small, and with the thousand inventive ways in which the inmates band together to hang on to their humanity. Talarigo, who spent several years in Palestinian refugee camps and now lives in Japan, describes in precise and matter-of-fact yet musical prose the densely detailed lives of people the wider world has chosen to forget. So hermetic and complete unto itself is the society he evokes that it comes as a shock to learn that Miss Fuji, who has a mild case of the disease and takes the drug now known to cure it, is nominally free to leave the island whenever she chooses.
Why she can’t, or won’t, is linked to the larger themes of this wise and merciful book, which underscores in the most haunting way the critical difference between social change and social progress. By the time Miss Fuji arrives at her last chance to make a decision, Nagashima has become a velvet prison — complete with supermarket, electric wheelchairs and television — and the world outside has found new scourges and new outcasts. Though it offers no false sunny outlooks, The Pearl Diver ends as a moving poem to the tenacity of ordinary human dignity under unspeakable conditions.
THE PEARL DIVER | By JEFF TALARIGO | Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York | 237 pages | $19 hardcover