For the last few years I’ve had no choice but to become someone else.
This is a strange book, but then fifteen-year-old Pearl is living no ordinary life. Squatting in an abandoned boathouse with her father, who we learn was once a college professor, Pearl is receiving an education beyond anything her father once taught. The reader is left to wonder what event caused such a shift in their lives and where her mother is? Pearl remembers their life before the boathouse, when everything was predictable, safe and she had both a mother and father. Her life now is that of an outsider, her father having decided he is done with the world and she simply at the mercy of his whims. Life before changed direction with the winds of her mother’s moods and always her father somewhere at a distance, there and yet not, then as now. Roughing it with two other men (Dox and Fritter) along the swamps of the south, Pearl shares bits and pieces of their life before, because her father refuses to talk about it. Everything about her life now is makeshift, but for all her grit she still longs for the things any girl would while also resenting that hunger.
When she meets Main Boy (Mason Boyd) he has the power to destroy the home her ragtag ‘family’ is living in, because his wealthy father owns the land. Pearl finds herself split between longing and distrust for Mason as his friends treat her more like a specimen than a human being. Mason can be tender as much as he can be cold. The creature comforts of his home are a seduction as much as his attention, but the power he wields is a dangerous beast. Pearl projects a tough demeanor, but with Main Boy it starts to crumble and she finds herself doing things most girls would find degrading. Mason is spoiled and entitled but Pearl’s life is an empty belly, her future directionless, unsettled. Her sense of self-worth waxes and wanes, and Main Boy knows how to manipulate the game in his favor.
Mason and his friends love to record dangerous pranks, and there is a disconnect in reality and their humanity which mirrors the real life internet clips we hear about in the news. I found myself cringing at Pearl’s seeming passivity in being around the boys. In her mind they might just be “flies” but in groups they can turn rabid and maul. Mean boys love nothing more than testing another’s bravado, especially if it’s a girl, be she Wendy to their lost boys or not.
The men in Pearl’s life are tough as nails but damaged, and her father seems to be losing sight of her and just what his job as parent means. Her father is steeped so deeply in his own loss that he never thought to question what all of it would mean for Pearl’s future. She is learning to live off the land, to eschew all the ‘things’ regular people desire but whose will is it? There are other vital lessons of survival for a girl that the land alone can’t teach her and someone should be watching over her. As the danger culminates we see the measure of worth placed on people based on their standing in society. Poverty, after all, seems to make Pearl an open target to any abuses the boys can invent. I’d like to say never would they dare the things they do with one of their own, but that’s erroneous, instead I say in their minds a girl who looks and acts like Pearl is an easier target, less precious.With her family of misfits squatting as they are where they legally shouldn’t be, the local boys have false sense of superiority, leverage to hold over Pearl. If something were to happen, surely she wouldn’t go for help, when they are breaking the law living as they are. There is a moment during the climax when one of the ‘flies’ says ‘we were just kidding’ and though I can’t go into the chapter without giving the story away, it hit me hardest. That’s often the way to squirm out of blame, when you hurt others and try to disguise it with the weak excuse of ‘just joking’, it’s used to excuse all manner of transgressions. The wilds of her surroundings, with so much wealth nearby makes for a hell of a story. It’s poverty, class, family collapse, and the chaos and confusion in the heart and mind of a girl just needing love. It’s narrated by a girl who has her foot in two worlds and doesn’t seem to understand either, not yet… but she will.
Publication Date: March 20, 2018
Farrar, Straus and Giroux