Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Pearl Diver

The Pearl Diver

4.5 12
by Jeff Talarigo

See All Formats & Editions

In 1948, a nineteen-year-old pearl diver's dreams of spending her life combing the waters of Japan’s Inland Sea are shattered when she discovers she has leprosy. By law, she is exiled to an island leprosarium, where she is stripped of her dignity and instructed to forget her past. Her name is erased from her family records, and she is forced to select a new


In 1948, a nineteen-year-old pearl diver's dreams of spending her life combing the waters of Japan’s Inland Sea are shattered when she discovers she has leprosy. By law, she is exiled to an island leprosarium, where she is stripped of her dignity and instructed to forget her past. Her name is erased from her family records, and she is forced to select a new one. To the two thousand patients on the island of Nagashima, she becomes Miss Fuji.

Although drugs arrest the course of Miss Fuji's disease, she cannot leave the colony. Instead, she becomes a caretaker to the other patients, and through the example of their courage, she gains insight into the deep wellspring of strength she will need to reclaim her freedom. Written with precision and eloquence, The Pearl Diver is a dazzling meditation on isolation and community, cruelty and compassion.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hypnotic . . . Talarigo’s prose is as evocative as a Hokusai woodcut.” —Los Angeles Times

“At once exquisite and horrifying, a piece of delicacy forged out of pain and the struggle against numbness. . . . There is no denying the loveliness of this book. . . . In Miss Fuji, [Talarigo] has given us a genuine hero.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Transformative. . . . Explores the question of what a person becomes after having been stripped of everything: name, family and function, privacy and freedom. Talarigo’s answer seems to be that we are saved not by what we are but by who we are, the part of us that exists within the flesh, that is capable of transcendence.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Luminous. . . . Everything looks magical through [Talarigo’s] lens.” — The Baltimore Sun

“One of the most honest, tender, and inventive books I've read in years. Talarigo never steps out of culture, out of voice, out of place; and yet this is a universal story, one of love, one of neglect, one of shame. . . . He can find redemption even in the narrowest corridors of the human spirit.” —Colum McCann, author of Dancer

“[A] meditation on endurance and socially sanctioned cruelty. . . . A quiet triumph.” —Chicago Tribune

"Absorbing and original. Talarigo has managed to create a tone and mood that are themselves expressions of a time and a place and a people. The resulting light radiates outward from one small society in post-war Japan—across the waters and the years—to where the reader sits, still deeply immersed after the last page has been turned." —John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road

"Utterly believable. . . . In Talarigo's hands, the leprosarium and all the humiliations that go with it take on a mythical aspect, while remaining intimate and specific. . . . The Pearl Diver does not feel like a first novel. There is nothing tentative, nothing lacking from this moving story." —The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

"Quietly powerful. . . . This is a lyrically told tale of ugliness redeemed and lives changed by small acts with large consequences. " —Liza Dalby, author of Geisha

"Spare . . . lyrical. . . . [Talarigo] has absorbed the delicate timbre of Japanese culture and literature . . . [and uses this] sensibility to paint bold, clean brush strokes that allow readers to envision the true picture. . . . A moving, simple, yet powerful story of how a soul can find a measure of dignity and freedom even in the most daunting circumstances. The life of [Miss Fuji] reverberates within the hearts of the fortunate people who get to discover her." —The Anniston Star

"An absolute, breathtaking gem. . . . Heartbreaking, haunting, but ultimately hopeful . . . a true secret treasure. . . . This one's the real thing." —Asian Week

"Talarigo has pulled a magnificent pearl of his own from the Inland Sea, a perfectly crafted, beautifully controlled and subtly multi-layered story about belonging and isolation that quickly transcends our baser fascination with the dreaded disease." —Fort Myers News-Press

"[A] terrific debut . . . [A] wise and merciful book. . . . This tautly written tale . . . simmers with quiet outrage not just at the horror of difference that prevails in a society built on conformity, but at the near-universal impulse to strip the sick and outcast of all that makes them human. . . . A moving poem to the tenacity of ordinary human dignity under unspeakable conditions." —LA Weekly

"Lovely, lyrical. . . . A gem you must not miss." —Westchester Journal-News

Publishers Weekly
This unusual debut novel set in 1940s postwar Japan renders brutality and intolerance in quiet, lyrical prose. When a 19-year-old pearl diver, the youngest of a crew working the Seto Inland Sea, discovers she is sick with leprosy, she is banished to Nagashima, an island leprosarium, where she is told to change her name and forget her past. Nagashima is its own kind of civilization, where the renamed "Miss Fuji" must care for the sicker patients, which includes helping the island doctors perform forced, often late-term abortions. Treated with drugs that make her isolation unnecessary, Miss Fuji remains healthy ("she has only the two spots on her body.... Medals or curses, she isn't sure how to wear them"), but she is still not permitted to leave and remains a captive for most of her life. The novel is divided into three sections, with the middle (and by far most substantial) section revealing its story through artifacts, as each object evokes a haunting, smaller story. At times the characters are drawn as artifacts themselves, with strained, wooden dialogue ("You deserve to be with all these freaks here." "There are no freaks here, only people who are sick"). As if to mimic his protagonist's bracketed sense of time, Talarigo details minute scenes and interactions, then jumps decades ahead. It's an effect that de-emphasizes his dramatic subject matter and allows the emotional consequences of the situation to surface in unexpected ways, as when Miss Fuji finds solace in watching children playing on a nearby shore. Drawing from actual medical history, Talarigo succeeds in telling a compelling story whose strength is its elegant simplicity. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
To quote from the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, January, 2005: An elegant and poetic story of a 19-year-old Japanese pearl diver still learning her craft a few years after the end of WW II. When she discovers that she has leprosy, her world dissolves. She hides for a while but eventually is discovered and taken to the island of Nagashima. It is a dirty, foul, crowded place where the lepers are isolated and cruelly treated. They must exchange their family names for a number and choose a new name because they have disgraced their families. She becomes Miss Fugi. Talarigo reveals what is in her mind through intimate detail. He describes the persistence of the patients as time goes on to improve their lot and to discover beauty in their lives and surroundings. Even after medications are discovered that halt and eventually cure the disease, it is decades before conditions improve. As Miss Fugi matures, she becomes a nurse and fully involves herself with the other patients, developing strong friendships. A few excursions away from the island help her realize what a home it has become for her. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Random House, Anchor, 237p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Mary Purucker
Library Journal
Through the experiences of a young woman who was a pearl diver prior to contracting leprosy, this intensely emotional debut novel chronicles life in a Japanese leper colony following World War II. Although her case is mild, the stigma associated with leprosy alienates her completely. Her name is erased from family records, and she is recognized only as a number, though among inmates at the colony she goes by the name she gives herself-Miss Fugi. The conditions in the colony are horrific, especially in the abortion clinic since inmates are not allowed to bear children. Changes occur slowly, though for Miss Fugi they take a lifetime. "A small step forward is better than one back," says Miss Fugi's friend, the poet Mr. Shirayama. With the discovery of a vaccine, the need for isolated colonies disappears, but life outside the colony does not provide the freedom the inmates had imagined. This revealing work is filled with heartfelt characters and disturbing events and is written with a compassion and skill rarely displayed in a debut novel. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03.]-David A. Berone, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An impressionistic debut about a young Japanese pearl diver who is sent to a leper colony. Nowadays considered primarily a disease of the tropics (where it has become increasingly rare), leprosy was a global scourge until quite recently: Talarigo's story takes place on an island leprosarium off the coast of Japan in the years following WWII. Here, sealed off from all contact with the outside world, the confirmed cases are sent to begin their lives anew under the most terrible circumstances imaginable. The 19-year-old pearl diver who arrives in 1948 and takes the name Miss Fuji (all lepers in Japan at this time are declared legally dead and required to assume new identities in the colony) has only a mild case of leprosy, but she is disowned by her family all the same and committed to the island for life. There, she becomes a medical assistant in the clinic, a place that offers little more than massages (or abortions) by way of treatment. The tale is told in episodic vignettes that move lightly back and forth among the various patients and administrators. We meet Miss Min, a storyteller; Mr. Shirayam, a gardener; Miss Morikowa, a Christian; Mr. Nogami, a Communist; Mr. Oyama, an urn painter; and the pregnant Miss Matsu (who wants, against all regulations, to keep her baby). The dreadful background of Miss Fuji's hopelessness is, if anything, intensified by the advent of new drugs capable of containing or reversing the disease-and by the stubborn refusal of the national health officials to authorize the discharge of arrested cases (like Miss Fuji's) back to normal society. Her sense of isolation is made even worse by her ability, as a diver, to swim across the straits to the mainlandwhenever she wants to. A keenly observed but rather lifeless portrait. So little happens that it's difficult to stay involved, let alone interested, throughout the whole.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Shores of Isolation

Her words are the only remaining artifact of those days before she arrived.

Nineteen forty-eight. This day, like all of them during the diving season, began slowly. Fixing the strap on her mask, eating a bowl of barley, mending a tear in the hood of her diving suit, eating dried sardine after dried sardine, smoothing a nick taken out of her tub, thinking that the kanji letters she had drawn at the bottom of it needed to be repainted. She ate more barley, some dried seaweed, pickled vegetables, drank green tea. The other divers did the same, not much chatter before the dives, concentrating on loading up on carbohydrates for the grueling couple of hours of diving.

Old man Kenichi and the other assistants waited in the boats to take the divers out a quarter of a mile into the Inland Sea. She carried her empty tub, as they all did, before the dive. Only after, when they were sapped of all their energy, did they want, need help. She sat on the edge of the boat, twisting and rolling her ankles, stretching her back and limbs. Some of the women squeezed into flippers, which, not so many years before, they began wearing—they are said to help your speed. That was exactly why she didn't wear them. Maintaining the same pace, the same rhythm, the comfort she found in the more than fifteen centuries of history, the sixty generations of doing things the same way.

In five minutes, they arrived; the boats swayed a bit before finding their balance. She, the youngest of the divers, waited until the others had done so, then tossed her tub and, feetfirst, joined it in the sea. This was the only time each day that her head didn't lead the way. And it was way out there, in the vast waters, that she was never alone. Cedar tubs all around, freckling the water, the divers holding on to the sides until they let out long whistles, released the tubs, shoved them off toward the nine o'clock sun, and disappeared in order of seniority.

The tubs wobbled on the waves, sometimes taking the morning sun from her, then, just as quickly, giving it back. Her arms tight against her sides, her feet swept in slow, steady strokes; waves tossed and jolted her body, the water dimmer, duller, murkier with each foot she went. Sixty feet down, the light was that of an autumn's half-moon. And down there, for the first time, she moved her arms from her sides, doing handstands underwater, feeling for the familiar. Oysters. Sea urchin. Scallops. Lobster. Seaweed. Abalone. Mollusk.

Sometimes, down there at the bottom of the sea, the hollow cracking of the pick against the rock, the hollow scraping, was sometimes answered very close by. The first time she had heard it, she thought it was an echo, but what she had thought were echoes continued, and when she had turned to her right, there was another diver dislodging an oyster, only an arm's length away.

This day, she chipped and pried at an oyster shell with her metal J-shaped pick, and after only a few chops, it was loose and in her hand. Arching her back, she pushed her feet off the rocks, the same pace as going down, arms at her sides. The water lightened the farther she went; halfway up, the silhouette of her tub appeared. Up, up until she popped out of the water, waist-high, settled back, dropped the oyster into the tub.

Both arms, at the elbows, hooked the tub. She wheezed, gasped, hoarse gasping, her lungs battling each other. The spring winds were strong, the sea clouds had made their way to and dissipated over Honshu. The top of the sea was so much warmer than the bottom. Nothing like a mountain. Sixty feet up, a mountain makes little difference in the temperature. Not the sea. Going down is like autumn into winter. Winter into autumn back up, but the thaw is very slow.

Her lungs cleared, her breathing no longer scratchy, she let out a long whistle, released the tub, gave it a shove off in the direction of the sun, and went back into the sea.

For the final time on that day, a day where she had done more than fifty dives, she headed back up, a lobster in her viselike grip. She surfaced, wheezing; the taut air squeezed out of her lungs to her throat, then through her chattering teeth. She showed Kenichi her lobster—barely able to hold it out of the water—knowing that he was thrilled because, as always, she shared it with him.

But lunch wasn't on her mind. She was so cold that she couldn't even climb into the boat, so tired that she couldn't even drop the lobster into her tub. The cold and exhaustion fed off each other. With his net, Kenichi scooped the catch from her limp, rubbery arm, dropped it into the tub, again stretched out the long fishing net. This time, her empty hands took it; he pulled, lifted her onto the two-step ladder and into the boat.

The sun was almost directly overhead, and although it was well into the eighties, she would not get anywhere near warm for at least a few hours; some days not at all. In the first couple of months of the diving season, she and the other divers balanced on the edge of hypothermia. The boat closed in on the west shore of Shodo Island. Kenichi was jabbering something, the glare of the sun off the sea blinding, buyers gathered on the dock ready to purchase the catch. None of it did she notice, just knew it, for every day was the same. Her glassy gaze was distant, far out there somewhere beyond the blue-on-blue horizon.

Kenichi moored the boat to the cement dock, flung a cigarette stub into the water, helped her out, set her catch next to her, which some of the buyers were already checking over.

"Come on; let's get to the divers' hut before you become stiff enough for me to tie the boat to."

He said that nearly every day and, as if the words were magic, she found herself taking hold of his arm as he led her over to the divers' hut. On the way, she stopped, lowered herself onto the dock, her legs knotted in cramps. She writhed in pain but quickly remembered to try to relax her body. Relax, relax, she told herself, while all the time her body told her to tense, tense. Relax. Leg, neck, back, bottoms of feet. They could strike anywhere. Other divers gave her a quick glance, realizing it was only cramps. She was back on her feet, hobbling to the divers' hut. Again Kenichi reached out for her.

"Can you stand alone?"

"Yes. I'm fine now." She pushed him away, coughed several times, cleared her throat, spat into the water.

He left her there outside the hut, went back to sort everything. She entered, closed the door, and joined the others, her legs still tight as the knots of rope holding the boats to the dock.

Three generations in that hut. Silent as they stripped. Water dripped off the floor, rattling teeth, sucking sounds accompanying the shivers. There was no energy for talk, no need for it. They helped one another with the hard-to-reach places—straps tied in the back of their tops, shedding hoods. She was no longer as self-conscious as she had been in her early months of diving. No longer embarrassed by her chubby but tight body, the gooseflesh, stone nipples, wrinkled hands and feet, tanned face like a mask against her white body, the shaking blue lips.

The unheated freshwater pinged off their bodies, only rinsed the outer skin of the sea from them. The other layers never left. Even in the long months of the off-season, she took the smell of the sea with her to sleep each night. She shivered getting dressed, shivered selling her catch, shivered while shivering.

She had had a good day—three small octopuses, a few dozen oysters, two sea urchins, and some seaweed, half of which she had put aside for her lunch, along with the lobster. The lobster that Kenichi had already removed and was preparing.

Wrapped in blankets, they sat in the divers' hut, drinking hot green or barley tea, cradling cups with hands still wrinkled by the sea, fighting not to think of the cold; in different ways, everyone went about distracting their thoughts from it. Mariko liked to hum old songs, wiggling her toes and fingers as much to warm them as to keep rhythm; Yurika fiddled with her Buddhist prayer beads; Yoko read an Agatha Christie mystery.

But for her, she thought back to that August, not even three years before, when she was certain that the water of the Inland Sea was warmer than it had ever been. Almost hot. She had asked one of the divers if there were any underwater volcanoes in the area. The women had looked up from the sorting of their day's catch, but nobody had laughed or teased like they usually did, her being the youngest of the divers, then barely sixteen. It would be weeks before anyone would dare to laugh, all waiting for the elder diver, Miyako, to show them when it would be okay to do so.

"Why do you ask that?"

She was annoyed that her question had slid out; it was only something that she was thinking.

"Why?" the woman asked again.

"It seems that the water is warmer than I can remember it."

"I've been diving in these waters more than half my life, and I'm old enough to be your mother, and I don't think the water is any different this year than it was before you were born."

She said nothing else.

The next morning, the eighth day of August, the sea was again warmer than normal; she was certain of it, but she kept inside what she thought. That maybe the heat from Hiroshima—less than a hundred miles away—had traveled from its delta, skirted its way through and under the scores of tiny islands of the Inland Sea, warming the waters around Shodo Island. A hot tsunami.

And for that week of days, when the water warmed, the divers had worked quietly. Bawdy jokes tucked away for future ears. Going about their business, like the heated Inland Sea went about its: waves rolling in, tide pulling out, rolling in, pulling out, rolling, pulling.

It wasn't until the middle of August that she believed the water had returned to its normal ways. She was in her final few dives when she surfaced and Kenichi told her the diving was finished for the day.

"A few more."

"No more," he said.

There was not a tub, except for hers, out on the water. She'd never been there when a diver died, although she had heard about it happening. Maybe this was what it was like. Kenichi rowed to shore. Nobody was shucking oysters; they were standing around, a few leaning against the dock, eyes locked onto feet or rocks or just locked. Another bomb, she thought.

"Where did they drop this one?" she asked.

"The war is over," said Miyako, her voice raspy, as if she had smoked a couple of packs of Golden Bats every day of her seventy years, although she didn't smoke at all. She called it "a diver's voice."

"The Emperor spoke. We have surrendered."

"How . . ." she began to ask, but she followed Miyako's eyes to the small speaker hanging on the pole. She looked at the speaker and kept looking at it, as if she could squeeze words from it. Nothing came out. Some of the people around the dock—fishermen, the divers, shoppers—stunned, numb, others with eyes reddened by tears. She didn't know what to do, or say, or whether or not to believe the unbelievable. The Emperor's voice. Couldn't be true, must be true. She continued staring at the speaker for a long while, but nothing came out of it. Not a word.

But on this day, nearly three years later, as the divers slowly warmed up, so, too, did the sounds of lunch. Oyster shells clapped, clinked atop one another on the ground; hot miso soup was slurped, crunchy pickles crunched, one of the divers let out a fart, starting giggles, billowing into waves of laughter, some laughs coupled with still-clattering teeth, making them laugh all the more. She, too, laughed, but she was always aware of her legs, which could be thrown into cramps at any moment.

Lunch, next to the diving, was her favorite time of day. Her half of the lobster was tasty, boiled in salt water, a little lemon squeezed over the top. She sat the lobster on her barley, alongside the seaweed and several kinds of pickles—radishes, bamboo, cucumbers. Still there was no real talking. A few burps, hiccups, a sneeze, as if that was how they warmed up their voices.

Then a loud scream. Yoko, lucky Yoko, held up a nice large white pearl from inside one of her oysters. It seems as if once a week Yoko finds one, she thought. In her four seasons of diving, she had found nineteen pearls, all at home inside a lacquer box, next to them an eighteen-inch string to measure the length of a future necklace. Yoko must have enough for two necklaces by now, she thought.

And this is how the talking began.

"You seem a little tired today, Chikako."

"Who, me?" Chikako pointed at herself, the chopsticks still in hand, a mouthful of octopus.

"That fine young husband of hers wouldn't let her alone last night."

"My husband?" Chikako laughed.

"I noticed you were walking a little unsteady this morning, even before the dive."

Again Chikako laughed, holding a mouthful of food, which she chewed and swallowed before adding, "I can hold my breath underwater longer than my husband can hold—" She stopped, letting the silence grow, then took another bite of food, never finishing the sentence. The divers were howling. One of them let a piece of octopus dangle from her mouth, keeping the laughter up.

"How about our young diver there?"

All the women turned her way. She squirmed with nervousness. She was still the youngest of the divers. Every spring, she hoped that a new diver, a younger one, would start so she could move out of that position.

"Looks like she's been doing some naughty things, too."

Everyone's eyes were on her forearm, to which Yumi pointed; everyone anticipated Yumi's next words.

"Some sucker bite he gave you."

A few laughs. She looked at the arm, as did everybody. She didn't know what to say, for she had only noticed it a few days before. The reddish spot about the size of a scallop.

"I bumped it on a rock last week," she said.

"That's a sucker bite if I've ever seen one," Yumi added, passing around a pack of sweet red bean cakes. "Only problem is that your lover sure has his direction all wrong. You have to teach him where he's supposed to put that mouth of his. Has to go lower than that."

Meet the Author

Jeff Talarigo, a former journalist, lived in a Palestinian refugee camp where he wrote several works of short fiction that were published in literary journals, including The Maryland Review, The Arkansas Review, and Chanteh. He has been writing and teaching English in Japan since the early 1990s, and lives with his wife and son on the island of Kyushu.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Pearl Diver 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lay unconcious.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oh god... he sat blushing. E had not gotten to know the med cat yt much... im...so aorry patchfur bu im worried about sandpool.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ummm i never fed you mie with herbs in it!!~spying skysong
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"He's in main camp!!!!"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. Btw, we are moving to sks all res.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brockeim More than 1 year ago
"The Pearl Diver" is a difficult book. Leprosy is not part of most our lives, and much of what we think of may involve Jesus Christ's healing of the 10 lepers in the Gospel of Luke. The book is not about leprosy, but it is the context which drives the story. It is about being confined in flesh, the ever present and ubiquitous human condition. Imagine a young woman diving with great skill to the ocean floor. The grace, beauty and athleticism just off the shore of a Japanese island alone is an image to carry a reader through each page. Author Jeff Talarigo finds the proper tone and pace so as to begin the story well. A diagnosis of leprosy changes this scene, and the woman quickly moves to a leper colony. Her family cannot handle the shame and disowns her. Giving context to the story are 'Artifacts', something Talarigo uses as object/symbols. The technique works like a subtitle within a chapter like as with "Artifact Number 0596: A bar of soap." The soap represents cleanliness and purity. Miss Fuji, as the young woman is called at the colony, carves them into shells or fish, and in them briefly finds freedom. The tone of the book is beautifully dour. It never ebbs and flows like the waves of the ocean dove into, creating emotional exhaustion for readers who want to leave the book uplifted. But leprosy in the 1940s is not a happy disease. The disease itself is hard, as is the social outcasting that packaged with it. It occasionally leaves a contemplative place and falls into sentimentality, and arcs into cynicism as Miss Fuji reacts against one patient who describes her faith to her. The most tragic portion is when Miss Fuji falls into intolerance, and "wants to rip their skin apart," whenever someone religious talks about what they believe. At once she claims it is OK for some, yet is enraged when patients discuss their beliefs openly. The world continues on without her, and it will continue when she's gone. She understands this, but isn't satisfied and pursues freedom. Excellently written, if a bit monotonic, "The Pearl Diver" is more than moralism wrapped in an exotic context. It looks for, and arrives at deliverance. --Brockeim
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A truly wonderful read! An entralling, interesting story that is beautifully written. The reader is drawn into the isolation of the characters, and the incredible spirits that adapt to the cruelty of ignorance and fear.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quick and exquisitely written page-turner, opens up the life of a young pearl diver in Japan who is exiled to a leper colony. Excellent selection for a book club- many avenues for discussion and debriefing. I loved it and would recommend it to anyone. Look forward to more books from Talarigo.