Monday, 1 May 2017

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


US cover
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein is a prequel to her much-renowed Code Name Verity. Hence it is also set in the same universe of plausible World War II events as Rose Under Fire and Black Dove, White Raven, all of which I have read and enjoyed. None of those books are required reading before picking up The Pearl Thief, but I can attest to increased sentimentality while reading The Pearl Thief after having read Code Name Verity. I teared up almost every time roses were mentioned (and they were the same roses). 🥀

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

UK cover
Before I started reading, I had misremembered names (and the last line of the blurb didn't help) and was expecting The Pearl Thief to be about the other protagonist in Code Name Verity, Maddie. I was not emotionally prepared for it when I realised that, of course, Julie was the Scottish one, with the French grandmother and great aunt who had been sent to boarding school in Geneva. That said, if you haven't read Code Name Verity and the shadow of the future isn't hanging over Julie for you, then The Pearl Thief is a fun, coming-of-age, historical YA novel set in the 1930s with a surprisingly bisexual protagonist. Surely worth a read just for that.

The story is told from Julie's point of view, more or less in the tone of a diary, but with pretty normal prose formatting and dialogue. Other major characters are Julie's closest brother Jamie (who readers of Code Name Verity may remember) and a couple of her Scottish Traveller friends. The latter two provide a launching point for a key aspect of historical life explored in the book, namely the discrimination faced by Travellers from otherwise perfectly nice and reasonable people. Julie is a bit of a sheltered outsider who, over the course of the book's adventures and misadventures, experiences and gains a greater appreciation for the differences between her privileged life and the lives of the nomadic Travellers she befriends.

The overarching plot links the above ideas with a few mysteries and other historical details, as well as Scottish river pearls. For the most part, the events of the book aren't too dire (it's not all sunshine and roses — oh, the roses! — but the main point of comparison is World War II) although there are some tense moments. There are also injustices which can hardly be said to be cheerful. But overall this was a fun and enjoyable read that I had difficulty putting down. I highly recommend it to fans of historical YA and of Wein's other books (especially Code Name Verity). In many ways The Pearl Thief made me want to reread Code Name Verity, but it's probably just as well that I own it as a paperback residing on another continent since I don't quite need the heartbreak right now.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, Bloomsbury UK / Disney-Hyperion US
Series: Code Name Verity universe, first book so far chronologically, fourth to be published
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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