The Unravelling (UK) / The Women of Pearl Island (US)

Written by Polly Crosby
Review by Helen Johnson

This story, with episodes set in the 1920s, 1950s and 2018, is less a historical novel and more a beautifully rendered meditation on life and grief. In 2018, Tartelin Brown leaves everything behind for a job as assistant to an eccentric old woman. Marianne Stourbridge lives alone on an imaginary small island off the east coast of England. She is a lepidopterist: she studies butterflies and moths. But she uses a wheelchair. Miss Stourbridge trains Tartelin to use the ‘killing jar’, so she can trap butterflies for Miss Stourbridge’s studies.

As she hunts for the lovingly described butterflies, Tartelin discovers that the island hides secrets—as does Miss Stourbridge herself. Conveniently for plot purposes, there is no electricity or phone signal on the island, cutting Tartelin off from everyone and everything she has known before. Readers initially learn more about Miss Stourbridge than does Tartelin, as the narrative is interspersed with episodes from Marianne’s earlier life.

While Tartelin’s pursuit of secrets drives the plot forward, the book lingers on the atmospheric island, shimmering in the heat haze. It becomes a symbol for isolation, for life, death, difference and change. For anyone who has visited the east coast, with its military posts of the 1940s and 50s eroding into the sea, the island and its sense of abandonment and melancholy is vividly recognisable, more real than the story Crosby has spun around them.

The historical aspect lies in the changing economic fortunes of England’s east coast that form the backdrop to Marianne’s long life. The characters live vividly through their individuality, emotions, and connection to the island. I was not surprised by any of the plot twists; they were clearly signalled. But I enjoyed my stay on the island, a world apart.