The Book of Pearl by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzione and Sam Gordon, 355 pp, RL 5

In 2013 I reviewed French playwright Timothée de Fombelle's book Toby Alone, an allegorical, philosophical story about a colony of miniscule people living in a tree. When Toby's father, a scientist, determines that not only is the tree that is their universe alive, but it has become endangered due to overuse, their family is sentenced to death. Suspenseful and shocking, stunning and heartbreaking, Toby Alone is unforgettable. With The Book of Pearl, de Fombelle has written yet another novel that is seared into my imagination. As with Toby Alone, images and ideas from The Book of Pearl will be with me for years to come. Three narratives woven together marvelously tell the story of a magical kingdom where fairy tales are born and the brutally vengeful prince who rules it, a family of confectioners who lose a son twice, and a boy who has a haunting experience in the French countryside that shapes his adult life.

Marshmallows. Or, guimauves, as they are known in French. It is both strange and beautiful to think that a book that has so much sorrow, loss and cruelty within also has such a beautifully sweet confection, created by lovingly generous confectioners, at its heart. It is 1936 and, tucked among the small businesses and artisanal shops in the Jewish quarter of Paris, clouds of the powdered sugar that coat the marshmallows hangs in the air and the faint rustle of the white, embossed tissue paper the marshmallows are wrapped in can be heard among the bustle at Maison Pearl. Still mourning the loss of their son Joshua, the Jacques and Esther Perl take in a strange teenage boy. Teaching him to speak French, he quickly becomes indispensable to them, both in their shop and as a son. When war is declared in 1939, the boy assumes the identity of their dead son, Joshua Pearl, and allows the gendarmes to conscript him into the military.

In the Kingdoms, a queen waits for the birth of her second child, prophesied to be a girl, at the summer palace where she befriends the impetuous fairy, Oliå. Her young son, Prince Iån, feels nothing but "scorn for this child who was threatening to invade his land." Tragedy strikes and the infant, in fact a boy, named Iliån, grows up wild and almost alone in the devastated summer palace, hiding from a brother who wants him dead while also falling deeply in love. In present day France, a teenaged boy heads out to the countryside to learn the art of photography and instead stumbles upon a strange hermit living in a house filled with suitcases. The man cares for the wounded boy, telling him never to look inside the suitcases, forbidding him from photographing his world, which, of course, the boy does.

The three stories are bound together by one beautiful, unforgettable girl, the fairy Oliå, and how their stories come together is haunting and masterfully revealed over the course of The Book of Pearl. From the natural world of the Kingdoms, described in imagery that is alternately bountifully lush and devastatingly savage, to the merciless inhumanities of a German prison camp, de Fombelle takes readers on a journey of love and devotion, perseverance and belief that tokens of proof can undo spells, ending with a satisfying climax in a crumbling castle slowly sinking into the canals of Venice.

More by de Fombelle:

 Source: Review Copy

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