The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Sentences of Death: Mary Gordon's Pearl

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 4 March 2005

This is probably the first novel by a mainstream, bestselling, 'serious' American writer to include the RIRA and the Omagh bombing as part of its main plot, if not the first to address the [UTF-8?]‘Antigone complex' as the motivation for its eponymous character. Pearl Meyers, driven by the accidental death of an autistic nephew of an incarcerated IRA bomber to go on hunger strike so as to die for the success of the peace process, decides to chain herself to the pole in front of the US embassy in Dublin. Her mother, Maria, travels there to intervene. From Rome comes the childhood friend with whom Maria was raised, Joseph, who has his own agenda and reasons for his own arrival at Pearl's bedside.

Removed to the hospital under the formidable care of Dr Hazel Morrisey, “the most appealingly drawn foil to Ivy League, privileged activist-turned-yuppie Maria Meyers,” Pearl pulls together her surrogate and actual family along with Breeda, the mother of the autistic boy Stevie Donegan and sister to Reg Donegan the IRA man. Stevie's father, a Yank with the suitable name of Mick Revere Winthrop, is a sort of Dave Rupert figure without the FBI paycheck, a meddling trust-fund backer of the RIRA, for whose cause Pearl's lover Finbar McDonagh and his TCD mates have pledged support. (For the record, I did find one error in a book that opens with Gordon crediting first Tim Pat Coogan's IRA work and then that of Ed Moloney, Padraig O'Malley, Bobby Sands' journal, and Gerry Adams' 'autobiographical work'. On pg. 279: 'The Gardai were always ripping up her place in Belfast', Finbar tells Maria about Breeda.) In a perhaps intentionally muddled series of events, Pearl blames herself for the fatal accident that killed Stevie, and she decides to forego her linguistic studies in Irish on her year abroad from Wesleyan to demonstrate her devotion to sacrifice her life not for the republican hard-liners but for the nascent 1998 GFA.

Gordon in her novels such as Final Payments and The Other Side has written often on unhappy Irish American families. This novel offers a departure from the New York terrain she has explored in fiction and essays in that it builds upon her recent, if rather self-pitying-memoir of her father, The Shadow Man. This account delved into her father, a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, who managed to be not only a speechwriter for Senator Joe McCarthy but a publisher of a soft-porn magazine in the 1950s. Gordon in her latest novel considers movingly the collapse of the pre-Vatican II, postwar Catholic mentality in which her father raised her, the tenuous connections to a sundered Judaic heritage, and the changes in a newly secularised (upper-middle-class at least) America for which Maria and her comrades had struggled against their 'white ethnic' parents' generation. Joseph, likewise, son of a Polish immigrant who had served the Meyers and who himself was raised by them along with Maria, lingers more as a secondary figure next to the assertive Maria, but emerges in a particularly mundane but powerful scene to finally speak his mind against his 'foster sister'.

The novel presents complicated issues of faith and its loss, the value of living and dying for a belief in a society that has shelved (if not solved) the issue of a Divine Presence, and the appeal and drawbacks of an Ireland that now resembles more the New than the Old World for returning Yanks. What will be most challenging to any reader unaccustomed to the editorial omniscience in Victorian triple-decker novels such as those of Dickens, Thackeray, or Eliot will be Gordon's use of a garrulous and always intrusive narrator who goads us along and guides the story in and out of the predicaments and pensiveness of Pearl, Maria, and Joseph. I let this voice wash over me for dozens of pages at a time, resisting and then surrendering and then being annoyed anew.

Maria resents Finbar (after he has told of the unprecedented cross-border co-operation between police forces south and north of the border in invading republican houses): 'She almost says, You are simply going to have to stop condescending to me. But she needs to keep his favor. She still hasn't heard Stevie's story, which seems to be connected, somehow, to Pearl's. Without this information, she's paralyzed.' (280). I felt the same way about what I call this 'recording angel' that never seemed to let the story take its own course, who constantly, like Jiminy Cricket or perhaps a voice of reason, kept up a running commentary like a 'color man' chattering while the sports game carries you on with its own energy, no need for added banter. Still, this irritating if sometimes endearing feature of narrative is rarely used at length in popular contemporary fiction, and Gordon's to be admired if also resented for daring such an insistently patronising mode of conveying the details of her long and serious novel. It could have benefited from some of the gallows humour beloved by the Irish, New York and Dubliner alike. Gordon's tackling generational changes, maternal love, and the end of idealism, so perhaps, like Maria and Joseph, 60s liberal earnestness trumps the 'whatever' generation the hippies spawned. The voice may be that of, as it tells us, a sort of pre-Marlon Brando godfather to Pearl; I preferred thinking of it as an assertive female angel, myself.

As the plot reaches its end, the allusions to biblical events and figures make for some satisfying typological comparisons between Judas, Mary Magdalene, the Resurrection, and classical figures like the aforementioned Antigone. Dr Morrisey poses as a great foil to the no-nonsense Maria, and their showdowns wittily play off New York and Irish characterisations. Although I feared from the pairing of Maria and foster-father Joseph a too-neat messianic Pearl incarnated, this luckily was averted. Pearl's father, in case you're wondering, is a briefly present Cambodian doctor who, after a month in the Big Apple and Maria's embraces, returns to his homeland and dies, off-stage before Pearl's birth. Thus he predicts the hunger striker, as her father conceives of to her mother: 'If we should have a child it would be very impure: Jewish, Russian, Cambodian, Catholic, Buddhist. A real mess. I am in love with the idea of mess. The mess is our only hope against the tyranny of the pure.' (95)

The RIRA represents the pure, against whose Mick Winthrop tirades against the 'eurodollar' Pearl counters. She becomes an emblem of the object at one with the color. This, in an early aside, matches what the narrator notes about Irish, in its equivalence of white, grey, and yellow with the meanings of brightness/wisdom, stone, and noble. Pearl sees, in her deliriium, detached faces as if cut-outs from her past, of Stevie and others she has loved and known. This scene reminded me of French Symbolist art of a century ago: faces like petals, falling from a branch upon a blank and therefore pure background. In Pearl's quest for equivalence, the deed of starvation blurs into suicide so that martyrdom and witnessing cannot be disentangled. Her embodiment is her path to enlightenment. What Maria, the doctor, and Joseph come to represent in their interruption of this chosen self-sacrifice is the call of the living not to follow too confidently into the realm of the dead, but to spare human allegiance for those among Pearl's world who seek to draw her back from the shadowlands to the mess of humanity.

Pearl: a novel. Mary Gordon. Published by Random House/Pantheon in New York & London. Random House, Toronto. 2005.





Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

4 March 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Honourary White Man
Marc Kerr

A Blanketman Still Fighting to be Heard
Anthony McIntyre

The Dam Has Burst
Mick Hall

The Peace Process Has Been Saved
David Adams

World's Largest Men's Room
Brian Mór

Green Beer and Bad Singing
Fred A Wilcox

Ireland's Neutrality is Not Threatened
Thomas Lefevre

Sentences of Death: Mary Gordon's Pearl
Seaghán Ó Murchú

24 February 2005

The Socialist Objection and Alternative
Eamonn McCann

Taking the Peace
Jimmy Sands

Life Amongst the Proveau Riche
Brian Mór

A Far Cry from the Hunger Strikers' Sacrifices
Anthony McIntyre

Tragic Legacy
Mick Hall

Some Economic Results of the Civilizing Mission
M. Shahid Alam



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices