The Pearl Thief

Written by Elizabeth Wein
Review by Jane Burke

Elizabeth Wein is a prolific writer, but this is her first book ‘set where I live’. It portrays a deep love for her adopted Scottish countryside, its culture and history.

The story takes place in the summer of 1938. Its heroine is the Earl’s daughter, Julia. We meet Julia just after her grandfather’s death, at a time when her ancestral home must be sold and bricks and mortar are transforming the estate into a school. The tale begins with a bang, a bang on the head that propels Julia into unconsciousness and also into a murder mystery.

Rescued by two young Travellers, Ellen and Euan, whose respect for nature and their indomitable spirit exemplify a proud and vanishing way of life, Julia’s worldview is changed. Pearl-fishing and pearl-theft provide an unlikely but brilliant narrative structure. Whatever else the book leaves you with, and Julia’s emotional journey is by no means a conventional one, it leaves you with a longing to see and even handle some of the ‘beautiful fat Tay river pearls’ that form the treasure at the heart of the story.

The story is told through dialogue and from Julia’s perspective, and both are charged and quirky. The language is plain but evocative: Julia leans out of a window of a car, ‘the fingers of wind rumpling the tufts’ of her hair. The Scottish countryside is rich with the tumble of burns and the song of birds, with otters and kingfishes, salmon and sticklebacks. But this is a book with its feet on the ground. Its research is thorough: you are quite sure Ms Wein has waded the streams and handled those fat, silver pearls herself. Her depiction of the Travelling People is warm but never cloying.

A book for young adults, written with girls of 13-16 in mind.