(Since Japan has been much in the news lately, here is an excellent novel set in Japan before the war.)
Vera, 13, lives in Vancouver with her grandfather, James Lowinger, a pearl merchant. Loneliness has driven Vera’s mother to jump off a bridge while her shiftless father travels the world chasing his next moneymaking scheme. Set in the 1930s, this novel is the story of a girl who has (as Ikkanshi, the sword polisher, will later tell her) “beginner’s mind”, both ignorant and clear of preconceptions. When her grandfather too dies, Vera ends up on a remote island in Japan with her Japanese ‘stepmother’ where slowly she is accepted into the all-female community of pearl divers, grows up, falls in love and nearly becomes ensnared in the politics of an increasingly militaristic Japan.
Filled with intriguing lore on pearls, their history and magic, and traditional Japanese swords, this coming-of-age story is told with a subtle and elegant simplicity, the writing exquisite and clear as sparkling water. When Vera helps Ikkanshi test an ancient sword by holding it in a stream to see if it can cut floating leaves, Govier explains, “they focused only on the task itself, and not its meaning,” thereby imparting a feel for an archetypal Japanese artistic view without having to state it baldly. Later, in a final testament, Vera’s grandfather tells the wondrous story of how he traded everything for a single pearl of incomparable size and possibility only to see it all disappear in an attempt to attain perfection. This fine novel creates a world of depth and feeling, one that brings together the mountains and seas of Japan, the sea’s nacreous jewels and the intriguing life of a young, spirited woman.