In his novel The Pearl Diver (2004), Jeff Talarigo combines the tradition of diving for pearls off the coast of Japan together with the less exotic practice of exiling Japanese citizens who become inflicted with the disease of leprosy. Japan has a long history of forcing people to abandon family members who become leprosy victims, reacting to the disease as if it were a source of shame. Such is the case for the protagonist in Talarigo’s novel, who at nineteen years old notices two sores on her body and soon recognizes them as the beginning stages of leprosy. She is a pearl diver and loves the freedom that this occupation offers her. That freedom is soon taken away as she is forced to live on the island of Nagashima in a colony of lepers.
Isolated from her family, friends, and coworkers, the protagonist is told to forget her history. Everything that she has ever known, authorities warn her, has been erased. She must even take a new name. Through a period of readjustment, the young girl is reborn with the name "Miss Fuji." Her disease is treated successfully, but she is not allowed to return home. Her former life is forever gone to her. To help her adjust to her new life, Miss Fuji learns to care for others at the colony. It is through her attention to others that the theme of compassion is expressed. Miss Fuji does not, however, completely succumb to the restraints that are placed on her life. She is by nature rebellious and finds ways throughout the novel to project her independence.
The story is set in post-war Japan, beginning in the late 1940s. As the decades pass, Miss Fuji witnesses many horrible betrayals, but even as conditions improve at the asylum, she realizes that as harsh as life is on the island, she is no longer suited to living among those who have remained on the mainland. The theme of survival is powerfully projected through the protagonist, who learns to cope with her isolation and actually thrive in spite of it.
The Pearl Diver, praised for its lyrical narration and simple and direct writing style, won the 2005 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This is Talarigo’s first novel. Prior to writing The Pearl Diver, Talarigo was a journalist, lived in Kyushu, Japan, for fifteen years, and worked there as an English teacher.