The story begins on the leper's island of Nagashima in 1948. A young woman stands at the base of the suicide cliff, where desperate bodies have cast themselves into oblivion: “This place of death makes her feel so alive.” She looks across the sea, where the pearl divers begin their daily diving adventures, a life she once shared. The pearl diver’s disease has not progressed; in fact, there is newly discovered medication to impede the progress of the disease. Still a young woman, “Miss Fuji” has only the memories of diving deep into the silence of the sea.
Miss Fuji massages the bodies of the other lepers, cataloging the loss of fingers and toes, some accidental, others purposeful, the result of an absence of nerve endings that invites damage to unsuspecting limbs: the loss of sensation. The newest patients receive weekly injections of Promin so that their leprosy will not advance, but at night the patients take turns, vigilant against rats that nibble at the nerveless fingers and toes of their sleeping victims.
Talarigo speaks of horror with tenderness, of dreams interrupted, families who disown the contaminated, condemning them to a slow death in isolation, even though a cure is eventually found in the 1940s. Fearing a public outcry, the officials refuse to release the patients whose disease can be controlled. Consequently, they remain on the island, sharing their stories, their skills and their generosity. Voiceless in a society that will not hear them; the lepers comfort each other, extending compassion in a world that has none for them.
The pearl diver observes the passage of these lives as well as her own as they live out their days quietly. Every year on her birthday, she stands facing her home island, Shodo, where her uncle lights a fire to show he has not forgotten. The pearl diver has her secret rebellions, swimming in secret at night to the forbidden surrounding islands, where children play in the day. As the years pass, the lepers are fractionally integrated into society, but Miss Fuji is tethered to the only home she has really known, freedom a concept she nurtures in her soul; there is a kind of peace as the lepers preserve their private dignity.
As so often happens when people are subjected to inhumane conditions, the young woman and the people she has come to know so well make a livable space where the days are unlivable, where death and decay permeate the air, poisoning hope. For all their deformities, their insides shine with a light that cannot be extinguished, in heart or in memory. In small ways, in the Japanese manner, the dying create a shrine to life. Asked to be complicit in horror, they find whatever small redemptions are possible, forming a spiritual chain to one another.
The Pearl Diver a small but powerful testimony to the best qualities of humankind. With the precision of a calligrapher, author Jeff Talarigo builds a shrine to the pearl diver and the other shadowy figures who live and die on the island. Washed in the dulcet tones of the past, the image of the pearl diver remains, her interminable kindness and spirit. The slowly evolving grace of the young woman’s life is a view inside the heart of isolation, a potent lesson on the strength of human character in adversity.