The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Published by: Disney-Hyperion (US); Bloomsbury (UK & AU)
Released: May 4 2017 (US & UK) June 1 2017 (AU & NZ)
Read: May 6 2017
Code Name Verity was a surprise hit in 2012 not only because of Elizabeth Wein’s original and witty style, but also for the spotlight she placed on rarely seen women contributing to WWII efforts. Verity and Maddie were plucky and brave, and to re-visit Julie (code name Verity) in 1938 was both a delight and a little bit heart-breaking.
It isn’t necessary to have read Code Name Verity before The Pearl Thief. In fact, I read one comment suggesting it might be better to read this new one first. It doesn’t matter, truly. Reading either will send you off to the other (in fact, right now while I write this review, I have my kindle open to Verity and am reliving her adventures and looking for Julie in every line). Just for the purposes of accuracy, there was another companion novel too, Rose Under Fire, published in 2013, and follows another woman pilot captured and imprisoned in a women’s concentration camp. Full disclosure, I haven’t read that one, but its reviews (on GR) are overwhelmingly positive.
The Pearl Thief reads like a period Ms Marple mystery. Julie arrives home early from boarding school, is whacked on the back of the head and spends two days unconscious in hospital waking with few blurry memories. Once back home, she endeavours to figure out what happened to her and why. Set on her Scottish ancestral land, readers soon learn that her family, the Beaufort-Stuarts have lost everything to crippling debt, and this last summer the family are packing up and moving out, while the contractors come in to convert the castle and grounds to a private school. There’s also a library with many items still to catalogue, and a lot of the action and mystery is centered here.
It’s this exploration of the changing times that author Wein handles so beautifully, and so poignantly. At 15, Lady Julia is privileged and very aware of the advantages of her station. Yet, she is not one to lord it over others, demonstrated by her tendency to dress and act like a boy, and her fierce loyalty to the McEwan’s, a family of Scottish travelers, spurred and demonised by the general population. Fortunately, Julie’s whole family understand the long standing traditional co-existence of the travelers and the landowners, and how they both benefit from the arrangement of providing land for the itinerant families while they helped with seasonal work. With the advent of industrialisation and automation, leading to the crumbling breakdown of social classes, we can see it’s the end of an era. We also know that war is on the horizon, although it’s not mentioned once. I am glad Wein doesn’t try to be clever and give any pretentious foreshadowing. Julie lives right in the moment. If anything, she looks back to a time when her grandfather was alive, and her childhood was carefree, and life wasn’t as complicated.
Julie’s interactions with Euan and Ellen McEwan, the travelers who rescue her, comprise the most compelling friendships, but we also meet Mary, the librarian, Julie’s brothers Jamie and Sandy. As with any mystery there are a number of suspects, and Wein makes readers work as she introduces any number of characters, all who add diversity and richness, red herrings and motivations. The story uses expressions and attitudes pertinent to the day, although Julie’s inclination to enjoy kissing both boys and girls seems tres moderne, it totally works. She’s an open-hearted, free-spirit who declares her desire to be bold and daring. She is all that without even trying. She noses around looking for clues, she questions any number of suspects, she manipulates people and circumstances to further her investigations, and never gives up. Does this make her the perfect person to become, oh, maybe a spy? Possibly. Because she’s truly wondrous here.
It’s a grand adventure told by a feisty and clever person. The Pearl Thief is highly recommended for readers who love their stories complex and involving. It’s a historical piece that recreates the time period with accuracy and delight. There’s a longing and nostalgia for a time past, and a lot of talk about connections and lineage, but also a reverence for preserving historical artifacts for the greater good, rather than personal gain or glory. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a certain poignancy for those of us familiar with Code Name Verity.
Copy provided by publisher, via Netgalley and read with thanks. Already out in the US and UK. Coming to Australian and New Zealand on June 1 2017.