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"It was not the first time Connie had killed someone". This first sentence immediately draws you into the plot of this book and is the first of many lines of suspense that occur throughout this captivating book. Immediately we learn that Connie Hadley has been involved in a car crash which has resulted in the death of a native Malay woman, but the nature of what happened to have caused her to kill someone previously, is something that I really wanted to find out, but, was left in the dark about for quite some time.
The dying words uttered by the native woman are key to the way that Connie deals with all subsequent events in the book, "I curse you. You family. You children. And You. I curse you all". The native's sixteen year old twins, Maya and Razak, witness these final words and are determined to seek revenge on behalf of their mother and ensure that the curse is fulfilled. Connie on the other hand feels total guilt stricken, as I'm sure we all would, at what she has done and feels that she must ensure that the twins are looked after.
The car accident happens in 1941 in Malaya where English born Connie lives with her husband Nigel, on their rubber plantation, just at the time when this area of the world is beginning to be drawn into the Second World War and shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The first part of the book includes some beautiful description of the jungle environment that the plantation has been carved from and the relatively luxurious life led by these Westerners compared to the abject poverty that the twins live in, in the shanty town area of Palur.
The author introduces most of the key characters of the book in these early stages. Connie (also known as 'old thing' by her husband) is the central character, through whose perspective most of the story is told. She is stuck in a loveless marriage having come to Malaya with no idea of the extreme heat and isolation that she would have to live in, and reminisces long and hard about life back home. Her life now revolves around her young son Teddy and she also has a secret that she can share with no one. Her husband Nigel Hadley was brought up on the plantation and lives for it alone, but also spends time hiding away from his marriage in a stripper bar, whilst pretending to be in meetings. His good friend Jonnie frequently comes to stay and seems to be a grounded, faithful friend to the family, but on one occasion he brings his acquaintance Fitz to the house on. Noone really knows quite what to make of him and they all seem to find him hard to trust. Six year old Teddy has known nothing other than life on the plantation with their servants and fully expects to follow in his father's footsteps. He is a fun love typical lad, loving to play with his dog, Pippin - who plays a very important role in several parts of this book. He also is obsessed with planes and is thrilled to bits when he is brought a kit to make one when Jonnie visits. And then there are the twins. Maya is so bitter, but Razak takes up the opportunity to work in the gardens that Connie has encouraged, to help ease her conscience.
A sub plot is also running to a lesser extent while the scene is being set back at the Hadley plantation. Madoc runs a bar and brothel out in the jungle and will stop at nothing in his endeavours to acquire money to expand this venture for the benefit of himself and his wife Kitty. He is a greedy bumbling self centred fat character and throughout I pictured him like Mr Bumble from 'Oliver Twist' or the fat greedy innkeeper from 'Les Miserables'. His antics come back to haunt him and eventually their stories interweave with those of the voyagers on the White Pearl.
I was quite prepared to keep reading about what these characters got up to living or visiting the plantation and was enjoying learning about the two sides of the cultures in Malaya during war time and thought that it was going to be an extremely good read. I knew that it was set in wartime, partly from the picture on the front cover which depicts a bomber flying over a jungle landscape and partly through having read the blurb where it is clear that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour signified an end to the relatively peaceful life that they have known up to now. I was worried that it would turn into a full on war story, but it doesn't at all, although you are always aware that the war is shaping the events that occur. This was a relief as I much prefer to read a people focussed book rather than war facts and horrors.
The White Pearl after which this book is titled, is a large and luxurious sailing vessel that was given to Connie by her husband as a wedding present. As the war comes closer to home for them and they begin to witness its atrocities, they take to the White Pearl and sail away to safety, adventure and the rest of their lives. And that it as much of the plot as I want to share with you, other than to say that from here on in you will be treated to as much action and adventure, love and hatred as you could possibly wish to have in any book. You'll be enthralled by so many dangers, intimate moments and encounters with goodies and baddies. This book is not a rollercoaster of a read; it is more like one of the fairground rides that fiercely pulls you from one direction to another, harshly changing direction repeatedly but leaving you feeling totally exhilarated and fulfilled. The storyline is so rich, with many twists and turns. Just as I thought I had worked out which direction the plot was going in, I was wrenched away again and all my pre-conceived ideas were uprooted, as I readjusted to the new piece of information I had learnt of unexpected happening that had occurred. This continued right to the end and I would have been no more surprised by a completely devastating ending or a happy ever after one - it could have gone either way! All of the characters appear to have their own agenda whilst on board the ship and it was fascinating to see how these developed and interwove and in some cases totally changed from what we had been strung along to believe.
Amidst all of this action, that could sound quite chaotic from my description, and certainly is at times, there is also calm. Descriptions of characters and the environment and perfectly portrayed. It is not over sentimental and wordy, but you are able to picture with a high degree of clarity all of the characters and the various settings whether they be in the jungle or out at sea, or at a calm and peaceful time such as sharing Christmas Day lunch or during a wild storm or air raid. The thoughts of the characters are expressed as parts of the book are written from their differing perspectives, so I felt that I had a great deal of insight into each of them, or at least as much as the author wanted me to have at any point in the story.
It was so interesting to watch as the relationships between the characters evolve as layers are peeled away and they learn more about their true characters or conversely as barriers are put in place and deceptions made. These aspects also add to the whirlwind nature of the book, but it is not confusing at any time as you totally believe in the characters as they are presenting at any one time. Central to the book is the relationship that Connie has with each other member of the cast and how these change over time. Connie's personality develops and changes as she deals with the torrent of emotions and occurrences that rain down on her and her fellow travellers and it is interesting to compare the comparatively weak Connie at the beginning who is submissive to her husband, to the strong character who emerges as events proceed. She makes mistakes and good and bad decisions along the way, but with her throughout is the presence of the native woman's curse.
Kate Furnivall was a completely new author for me. I may not have chosen this book as historical and war stories would not be my first choice, but I am extremely grateful to the friend, who brought this book as a present for me, for introducing me to the books of such a talented author. The author obviously has a wild and vivid imagination, but a section at the end of the book that explains about how she researches for her novel, reassures me that this is grounded in well researched historical fact. My knowledge of this period in history has definitely been enhanced as well as my understanding of the cultures of these countries and the relationship between natives and colonials. Her writing style is fast paced and absorbing and she has an excellent capacity to thoroughly engage her readers. I read the book quickly as I was so engaged. Each chapter seems to end with a cliff hanger, so whereas I would normally be quite satisfied to stop reading at the end of a chapter, I really didn't want to turn out the light to sleep. The book went everywhere with me and I found myself snatching small segments to read at any available moment.
I'm sure that my enthusiasm has already made it clear that I highly recommend this book. I'm a 40 something year old female, but I'm now passing it onto my seventeen year old daughter as I think this will be just her sort of book. I think a male would also appreciate the gripping writing style and there is certainly plenty of action and adventure. There is also enough romance to satisfy people who like that genre of book. I would say that there is a well balanced mix of content so there should be a bit of something for everyone. She has also written four other novels, so these will now be added to my wish list and I will look forward to reading them all as well. She is currently writing a book set in the archaeological world of Egypt in the 1930s just after Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered, which sounds like it will be a good one to look out for too.
Reading group questions are included and this would make an excellent choice for a reading group as it offers up so many discussion opportunities.