Song of the Pearl by Ruth Nichols
Shortly after finishing Ruth Nichols’ first novel, A Walk Out of the World, I found the author’s Wikipedia page. Impressed by the sadness of the story presented by its anonymous contributors, I decided to take a closer look; and ordered another novel, published by Atheneum in 1976, seven years after her first. According to its dust jacket, this was originally classed by Atheneum as fiction for young adult readers.
The first chapter is nine pages long. Within these nine pages Margaret, the story’s protagonist, experiences rape, incest, chronic illness, and an early death at age sixteen, which she apparently welcomes. This explains so much about the way Nichols’ first book opens, and also confirms my suspicions about its title. A Walk Out of the World opens with a description of two siblings:
They were slender, silent children who never played with anyone but each other.
They lived in an apartment house in the middle of the city. It was the sort of building that is not a home and does not become one no matter how long you may live there . . .
They were not unhappy; they were not anything in particular. Sometimes they wondered why . . . Judith often tried to express the things that they both felt. “I want to run,” she said. “But it’s as if we’re shut up in a little box and can’t breathe.”
In the opening chapter of Song of the Pearl, Margaret is also unable to breathe. Her lifelong struggle with asthma culminates in suffocation, on the last page of the chapter.
If I had to summarize Song of the Pearl using one word only, I would describe it as a novel about sorrow. Nichols presents a fairly straightforward grief journey, masquerading as Margaret’s trip through a bardo, or intermediary afterlife; with each new phase of grief distinguished from the last by a new landscape rich in symbolic contouring.
At the time of the book’s publication in 1976, Nichols was, according to information included on the flyleaf, finishing a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at McMaster University. One year later, she received the degree; and subsequently worked as a lecturer at Carleton.
The specific afterlife journey Nichols presents does not conform to any one religious tradition; but, rather, borrows from many. Margaret has experienced, and gradually remembers, lives which preceded the one just ended. Reincarnation plays a significant role here; and yet the framework is neither explicitly Buddhist, nor Hindu. In a note at the end of the novel, Nichols explains that its title, Song of the Pearl, derives from a Gnostic hymn dating from “the first centuries of our era.” The ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna—evoked as the evening star in chapter three—appears in human form at the very end of the story. And a landscape encountered at the start of the sixth chapter conjures both Demeter, classical goddess of grain, and her more sinister daughter Persephone:
On a mellow day at summer’s end, Margaret came to the castle . . .
Its earthworks overgrown with wild grain, its walls tangled with blackberry bushes, the ruin stood in a bee-buzzing silence. Goldenrod, yellow daisies, the pale wild grass: what was there here to make her heart beat faster?
She did not know. She walked forward, and the silence was so deep around her that she felt she had parted a curtain of golden gauze. The air shimmered with power.
Birds and insects were the only visible stirrings of life . . . Margaret smiled wryly and hesitated in the stillness.
Then she saw the gaping doorway.
It opened onto blackness and exhaled the dampness of cold stone. Past its threshold, steps led downward. Margaret stepped into the shadow of the doorway. The silence sang like a strung bow.
Nichols is at her best in moments like these. This novel is, fundamentally, about taking time out from living to grieve: to alternatively construct and dismantle—in an ongoing and cyclic way—a sense of self, or core identity. And Margaret’s crisis is, at root, a crisis of identity. Personae are built up, shattered, and reconfigured . . . in a process with, I would imagine, significant resonance for young adult readers involved in similar patterns of exploration. How lovely, and how masterful, to quietly—and without even speaking their names—summon the power of mythical guides to mediate this activity.
As a consequence of drawing on so many disparate traditions, Nichols runs into trouble with resolution at the end of the novel. A nod toward the doctrine of karma—the idea that Margaret has somehow earned her own misfortune, through missteps taken in previous lives, and in effect chosen to be raped—leaves me both skeptical, and disheartened. A statement that “the plots of all her stories reflect to some extent the problems and solutions she has found along the way,” included in the author’s biography, hints at an autobiographical foundation for this as well as other novels. Back in 1976, Nichols might have needed an explanation for her own suffering. She might have found reassurance in the idea that past actions weave things into the future; as well as some measure of retroactive control. The challenge, here, lies in extending this line of reasoning beyond oneself without undermining compassion for others.