Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter

Written by Lizzie Pook
Review by Catherine Kullmann

1886. The Brightwell family—two brothers, Willem and Charles, with their wives, and Charles’s two children, Thomas and ten-year-old Eliza—arrive from England at the fictional Bannin Bay, Western Australia, to make their fortune as pearlers. Ten years later, they appear to have succeeded. However, the life they lead is hard, especially for the women, who are left alone for weeks at a time while the luggers go in search of pearls and mother-of-pearl. By now, Charles Brightwell is an acknowledged master-pearler with a fleet of luggers. When he does not return from one of these expeditions, Eliza refuses to believe that he is lost forever. Eliza finds solace and respite in the strange, savage, and all-enthralling natural world, an interest which she conspiratorially shares with her father and where she feeds her thirst for knowledge and her longing for beauty. This makes her an outsider in this brutish, corrupt society but also gives her the independence of mind that enables her to pursue her quest despite opposition and intimidation.

The story is told from Eliza’s point of view in an intense, third-person present tense narrative that is at once intricate and mesmerising. Eliza’s ten years in Bannin Bay, years in which she grew from childhood to womanhood, have forged her into a relentless pursuer of the truth about her father’s disappearance, no matter what it costs. The language is at times lyrical, especially in the descriptions of nature, but nature here is also harsh and unforgiving. Overall, a fascinating insight into 19th-century Western Australia. A detailed historical and cultural note provides background information.