A strange and elfish child

Beautiful, brave, spirited, witty, talented - but is Hester Prynne a convincing heroine? By Carol Birch; Pearl by Christopher Bigsby Weidenfeld, pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of 1850, Hester Prynne falls foul of the harsh Puritan laws of 17th-century New England. The crime is adultery; the sentence, to wear perpetually upon her breast the scarlet letter "A" for adulteress. Christopher Bigsby's first novel, Hester, which has just won the McKitterick Prize, was a prequel to this. Now comes the sequel, Pearl, a fictional life of Hester's daughter, the mysterious "child of sin".

Pearl is 20 and a veritable catalogue of perfections: beautiful, brave, spirited, witty, talented, fiercely independent. She embarks upon a voyage to England to claim her inheritance. In London, she encounters a riotous medley of jolly grotesques before taking ship to Norfolk only to find herself pitted against a conspiracy of near demonic proportions. Battle commences. Suffice it to say that no man, probably not even the devil himself, could ever be a match for Pearl.

Cliches abound: feisty heroine, evil villains, tall dark stranger, frog prince, hitman falling for intended victim, creepy house with secret in cellar, hero and heroine venturing pointlessly alone into villains' den, Hitchcockian chair slowly swinging round to reveal ... I could go on. The style flows from good literary prose to poor pastiche. It is full of little proverbs and homilies, ponderous wisdoms from the narrator couched in archaic language, yet the feel of many of the conversations is peculiarly modern. This gives a curious disjointedness to the novel. Pearl, we are told more than once, was "born for the future". Unfortunately, the impression too often is of a 20th-century woman transported back in time to mouth modern feminist ideas, a post-enlightenment thinker in pre-enlightenment times.

Bibsby describes Pearl's moment of passion in the bluebells thus: "Had she weighed in the balance her mother's natural truth and warm humanity and found them of greater worth than the cold injunctions of a society which sought to regulate the lives of those whose obedience it required, not for salvation's sake but to maintain the order of the state?" This is not fiction. This is modern sociological analysis of the mores of a past time, fine in an essay, less so in a novel. Moreover, all this waffling gives us no real hint of the simple passion of the moment itself.

Author and publisher are clearly keen to stress the link with Hawthorne's book, encouraging a comparison by which Pearl can only lose. Where the original was dark and complex, here all is simplified. As, in Hester, the quietly hysterical clergyman Dimmesdale became a standard romantic hero, so in this book, Pearl, the "strange and elfish child", tinged with danger and even violence, transmutes into a wilful young miss who, when crossed, cries "Oh!" prettily and stamps her foot. Where The Scarlet Letter was intriguing for its ambivalence, here we are told exactly what to think. Bigsby is happy to pull up Hawthorne on points of order. He even lets us in on what God thinks about it all.

Pearl is an odd mix: romance, thriller, feminist tract, gothic melodrama. There is a strong core of good prose here. Bigsby writes lyrically about the sea, the pitch and sway of a vessel, the sounding of a whale, St Elmo's fire playing round the masts. The same descriptive skill gives us the Thames at dawn, "tumbled together with ships", the bustle and stink and colour of London a few years before the Great Fire, the flint walls and shining waters of rural Norfolk, the windmills "like tall white flowers in the green fields". What a pity such strengths are let down by a lack of restraint that finally falls flat on its face in a bewilderingly bad cocktail of awful comedy and cheap Grand Guignol horror. The crunch is a scene of crude splatter that had me saying aloud "Oh, come on", as if it were the punchline of a bad joke.