Mysterious and melancholy, The Book of Pearl consists of two complex, interwoven strands. One is historical fiction, the other is pure faerie fantasy, and both are the story of Joshua Iliån Pearl. Framing these two strands is the story of a young photographer/narrator who first appears as a teen and whose intervention many years later as an adult creates the satisfying denouement.
Author Timothée de Fombelle begins his multi-genre YA tale in murky, unexplained haziness. As the fog slowly clears from the lens of the narrative, the reader sees a waif with an “unplaceable accent.” The historical fiction part of the novel has started and it’s pre-WWII Paris. Welcomed by the Pearls, proprietors of a thriving marshmallow emporium, the waif stays, eventually taking on the name of their deceased son, Joshua. Unbeknownst to himself or the Pearls, though, he is also Iliån, the unacknowledged second prince of a distant fairy realm who has been banished, memories erased, “to the one time, the one world, where they don’t believe in fairies or tales.” Over time, Joshua/ Iliån catches fuzzy hints of his original identity, even collecting relics from it. But he never glimpses his first love, Oliå, whose fate is never to let him know she is near, lest she perish.
It’s a tour de force of intricate plotting and a masterful translation.
One of the delightful aspects of books first published outside the U.S.—and particularly books in translation—is that they are afforded the luxury of unfolding at the pace their narrative demands. These stories from afar often delicately coax the reader along until, all of a sudden, one is hooked and unable to put the book down.
This, of course, is how The Book of Pearl works and undoubtedly part of why it was short-listed for the 2020 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize.
Historical fiction? Fantasy? First person YA narrative? The Book of Pearl is all of these. But at the core, it’s a love story with the requisite betrayal and redemption all wrapped up in one marvelous read.
Written by Timothée de Fombelle
Translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon
2018, Candlewick Press
Watch translator Sarah Ardizzone’s fascinating interview with the author, “On Imagination in Youth Literature,” for the French Institute UK.
Read two interviews: Reading Book Group; Books for Keeps.
Awards: short-listed for the GLLI Translated YA Book Prize
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020), Undead Messiah #3 and Bibi and Miyu #1 (both TOKYPOP, 2020).
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