First published in March 2012.
The White Pearl is Kate Furnivall’s fifth novel. It takes place in Palur, Malaya – ‘a town built by Englishmen for Englishmen’ which was built to ‘demonstrate to the natives how civilised people lived’ – and begins in November 1941. It focuses upon the character of Constance Hadley, the wife of wealthy rubber plantation owner Nigel. She is discontent with her life in Malaya and her far from happy marriage, points which Furnivall makes clear from the outset. Nigel is a stark character at times, and seems utterly terrified of Connie showing emotion or love towards him. She cannot even touch his arm without his body becoming rigid with fear. As a result of this, Connie is a far more compassionate character throughout than Nigel, who is heavily interested in politics and the affairs of the war, appears to be.
Connie’s son Teddy, a bright and inquisitive seven year old, was born in Malaya and is far more used to life in the country than his mother, who still has difficulty adapting to the situation in which she finds herself. The differences between mother and son are apparent, from Teddy’s ‘superior command’ of the language, to the fact that ‘he wasn’t afraid of snakes the way she was, a gut-gripping terror that paralysed her’.
The opening sentence – ‘It was not the first time Connie had killed someone’ – is intriguing and launches the reader straight into the story. This relates to an incident in which Connie loses control of the car she is driving and kills a woman who haunts her dreams. Stark differences between the white families living in Malaya and the ‘natives’ have also been portrayed throughout The White Pearl. Connie faces no consequences with regard to her killing of the Malay woman, as the police are more than happy to just sweep it under the carpet and move on. Connie, on the other hand, is desperate to learn something about the woman she killed and about the children she has left without a mother. In consequence, the story does not just follow Connie and her husband and child, but also Maya and Razak Jumat, the twins of the woman she killed. She feels a compulsion to help them in order to eradicate the guilt she feels.
Other characters also feature throughout The White Pearl, and include the Hadleys’ house-boy Masur, stylish Flight Lieutenant Johnnie Blake, ‘moody’ Mr Fitzpayne, fellow colonial wife Harriet Court and Japanese trader Shohei Takehashi, with whom Connie conducts an affair. The novel is written with such compassion for Connie and the reader can see that Furnivall cares about her characters merely due to her portrayal of them. Connie’s thoughts are included in italics throughout, running concurrently with the narrative and dialogue.
The White Pearl of the novel’s title is a sailing yacht purchased for Connie by her husband as a wedding present. This yacht becomes an intrinsic part of the novel when the attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii are launched, an event which tears the family apart, forcing them to flee Malaya along with several friends.
Many parallels are created throughout, ranging from wealth to poverty and sad lives to privileged ones, to the great disparities between whites and the local people. The themes which Furnivall touches on include envy, fear, mistrust, guilt and deception, as well as the building up of outward facades which differ so greatly to what lies beneath them.
The White Pearl is told from a third person perspective. This allows us to get a feel of the characters straight away – we know what drives them and can further understand them and their actions in consequence.
Furnivall’s descriptions work very well, particularly when she focuses upon the oppressive heat of Malaya, the evocative descriptions of places and suspended moments in the lives of her characters. She has made wonderful use of social and historical information, including such aspects as guidelines for the running of rubber plantations, labour strikes and the great chasms which exist within the narrow-minded society. Undertones of sinister goings-on – Chinese triads, prostitution and opium, for example – are also included. This ensures that the novel is historically grounded throughout. A sense of foreboding is created almost from the outset with sentences like ‘the jungle was stamping its feet’. Furnivall’s personification of the nature in Malaya allows the surroundings to become a character, and their overwhelming stance in the lives of the all involved is evoked very well. Such geographical precision really helps to set the scene.
The vocabulary used, particularly with regard to the phrases uttered by Nigel, fit well with the period. Furnivall has also included words from the local dialect which are shown in italics with English translations beside them. This technique works well and is not overdone.
The White Pearl is an absorbing novel, which reads almost like an adventure story in some places. The story itself is incredibly enjoyable but the unrealistic ending does unfortunately let the book down.