The Book of Pearl by Timothee de Fombelle

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2018

Genre: YA fiction/magical realism

Release date: February 6, 2018

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young man gets sent to the world of ordinary humans, doomed to spend the rest of his life away from his one true love. He does everything he can to go home, but the enemy that chased him away wants him dead. Translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon do their best to interpret French author Timothee de Fombelle’s book, The Book of Pearl, but ultimately can’t fill in the blanks of a loose story.

A boy runs—almost literally—into Joshua Pearl, a stranger and loner, in the middle of the woods. The boy wants to escape his own challenges, but when he meets Joshua he reevaluates his life. There’s something about this elderly gentleman that keeps the boy in the woods with him.

Despite his skepticism, Joshua develops a friendship with the boy and reveals his story. Joshua is not, in fact, Joshua Pearl. His true name is Ilian, and he is the younger prince of his land in a place far removed from this world. Ilian’s older brother, jealous and greedy about ruling after the death of their father, banishes Ilian to the land of ordinary humans.

Ilian then tells his new young friend about Olia, a fairy charged with protecting Ilian in their home country. Ilian and Olia met when the two were young, and through the years developed first a friendship and then a love that seals them to one another. Ilian’s brother knows about Olia, if not exactly the nature of Ilian’s relationship to her, and manages to sideline Olia long enough to send Ilian away.

Ilian arrives in the middle of one of history’s greatest tragedies: the Second World War. He finds himself on a street in Paris where a kind couple takes him in, and he becomes the son they lost years earlier in a tragedy. When the war demands the couple’s son as a soldier, Ilian takes the son’s name and rechristens himself Joshua.

Slowly he learns the ways of this world but is convinced that if he can collect enough artifacts with the sense of magic, they will transport him back to his home. Unknown to Ilian, Olia has found a way to the world of humans and has begun searching for him. Right on her heels, however, is a contingent sent by Ilian’s brother to eliminate him for good.

Author Timothee de Fombelle builds a story with beautiful descriptions. The care taken by translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon is evident in the lushness of the English version of the story. If the language is this rich in a translated version, readers will probably wish they could experience the book’s true depth in the original French.

The plot itself has its own share of problems, however. The protagonist recounting Ilian and Olia’s tale remains unnamed, which keeps considerable distance between the readers and him. Because the focus of the book is, in fact, Ilian and Olia and Ilian’s new life as Joshua, readers get little information about the narrator. They may end up wondering why he’s necessary.

Also, Fombelle tries to unfold several ideas at roughly the same time—the narrator’s own angst in life; Ilian’s birth and his brother’s vengeance; Olia’s charge as Ilian’s protector; Ilian’s arrival in Paris; his transformation into Joshua Pearl; Pearl’s mystique and pursuance of artifacts. Unlike other books that have reveled in a multi-story plot—Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes immediately to mind—here the various plot points don’t coalesce to create one single pool of shimmering fairy tale magic. It certainly tries but doesn’t quite get there.

Equally frustrating is the way Fombelle tries to duck the need for some necessary story devices. The book moves forward confidently in some parts and in others relies too much on the fact that readers will accept major action because the characters state it. Late in the book, the narrator pops up as an afterthought to take the story to its climax. It’s almost as if Ilian and Olia had to wait for the narrator to arrive before moving forward.

Readers who enjoy the language typically employed in fairy tale stories will appreciate The Book of Pearl. Others may find the multi-plot system and the unnamed narrator too much of a distraction. I recommend readers Borrow The Book of Pearl.