Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter Review
I received an advanced reader copy of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook from Netgalley in exchange for a review. This book comes out on 3 March 2022 and I will absolutely be purchasing a finished copy for future re-reads. I am also looking forward to seeing the map at the front of the book, which was unfortunately distorted in the e-arc.
I was hoping for a vibe similar to The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock and it delivered. The story revolves around Eliza Brightwell, the daughter of a prominent pearler in Western Australia in the 1890s searching for her missing father after he has been presumed dead. It feels a little like a historical Winter’s Bone with a The Nightingale twist.
A few trigger warnings before we start: this book is pretty brutal in places and describes a lot of racism that was certainly present in colonial Australia. This book does talk about the British colonial project that put the pearling industry into business and exploited Aboriginal Australians for profit, but I do wish there had been a deeper discussion. I did appreciate the author’s note on the racist practices in Australia as a whole and specifically in the pearling industry, such as the preference for “employing” pregnant Aboriginal women as pearl divers, supposedly because of their greater lung capacity. This briefly appears in the text of the book, but again is not explored as much as it could have been.
Eliza’s father, Charles, has an Aboriginal man, Balarri, employed aboard his pearling vessel who is immediately accused of Charles’ murder, even though Charles is simply missing. Some of the book is told from his perspective as he tries to hide in the Outback to escape the overzealous persecution of the local “law.” There is no evidence to connect him to this crime — nor is there much evidence that a crime has even taken place — but the local police hunt him down, regardless. I think this aspect of colonial racism is well-discussed and correctly represented.
Pook also discusses the race dynamics at play in Australia between the white settler establishment and East Asian communities. As a part of Eliza’s mission, she talks to merchants in Chinatown who had connections with her father and his business. These discussions correctly describe the anti-Asian racism that took place in real colonial Australia and elsewhere in the colonial sphere.
Eliza is a tenacious young lady who feels trapped by the gender norms of her time and the guilt of her past. Due to the social constraints of the 1890s, she teams up with a German traveler, Axel, to be her “chaperone” on her journey. They develop a strong friendship in the crucible of their terrifying adventure and both show incredible growth. What starts as a seemingly straightforward mystery of a possible shipwreck, turns into a winding chain of secrets and subterfuge with incredibly high stakes.
Another aspect I wish Pook had focused more time on in this story is Eliza’s disability. She has tinnitus (ringing in the ears) as a result of a childhood accident. It is referenced in the text often, but there is not a whole lot of talk about how this hearing disability affects her and her communication. I also have hearing loss and tinnitus and I have not seen a lot of representation of this kind of disability. Since Eliza’s arc in this book is questioning various people in connection with her father’s disappearance, it would make sense that her tinnitus would interfere with that, but that possible aspect of the story is under-discussed (in my opinion, at least).
I am being hard on this book only because I see Lizzie Pook’s potential and good intentions and I want her to continue to write great stories like Moonlight and The Pearler’s Daughter with a critical lens. I absolutely loved this book and found it compelling and well-written and will be looking forward to Pook’s future writing.