The Edinburgh International Book Festival is drawing near and I am, once again, looking forward to introducing and chairing events. One of these is with Elizabeth Wein who has generously agreed to be in conversation with me. We’re going to be considering her novel The Pearl Thief set in Perthshire in the summer of 1938. It’s a very good book full of rounded jump-off-the-page characters living, moving and having their being in a landscape with which I am fairly familiar.
The heroine is Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart, only daughter of the Earl of Craigie and grand-daughter of the late Earl of Strathfearn. But think again if you’re expecting a story of the aristocracy at play. Elizabeth’s event at Edinburgh is entitled A Very Scottish Mystery and that’s exactly what The Pearl Thief is. Actually it’s a mystery spawning other mysteries and delving deep into the Scottish landscape.
The Strathfearn estate has been sold to a school and Julie, her grandmother, mother and assorted brothers are clearing and packing generations of family history while the local librarian and a visiting academic are cataloguing precious documents and artefacts. Then the academic disappears, Julie is attacked, some water pearls vanish and everything is blamed on the McEwens, a Travelling family well-known to Julie’s mother.
Julie plays many parts as the multiple mysteries are solved and she tries to discover who she is and navigate her way into adulthood. Like anyone else her journey is full of twists and turns, shocks, surprises and confusion. She is an engaging, complex, human heroine full of passion for life and I was left wanting to know how her life developed.
Those of you who know Elizabeth’s books will be aware that we do know more of Julie’s story. The Pearl Thief, whilst being an absolutely complete book in its own right, is a prequel to the massively successful Code Name Verity. Incredibly I failed to read it when it was published so I turned to it immediately after finishing The Pearl Thief. And I couldn’t bear it. I read it in the space of about eight hours, always thinking I’d have to stop but unable to put it down. I knew enough about the book to know that it wouldn’t, couldn’t end well but, nonetheless, I kept hoping against hope. However it all ended in tears – mine!
I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t yet read these novels. Because you must read them. The dilemma now, though, is whether to read them chronologically by publishing date or internal dating. And I don’t have an answer to that. Whatever you choose your heart will break but Julie Beaufort-Stuart will stay with you.