BOOK REVIEW: Journal of Folklore Research on Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest by Ruth Finnegan
An International Journal of Folklore and Ethnomusicology
Reviewed by Arle Lommel | Indiana University
From the blurb on the back one could be forgiven for believing Black Inked Pearl: A Girl’s Quest to be a work of “women’s fiction,” a term unfortunately tainted for many with the suggestion of a category somehow lesser than “real” literature, one made of badly-written pot-boiler romances and soft-core vampire fiction. Such an assessment would be mistaken, both in the assumption that this work is primarily of interest only to women and in the implicit—and mistaken—belief that it would be a lesser work even if it were. Make no mistake, Ruth Finnegan’s novel is no light work: it is a work that demands much of the reader, one best taken in bites and digested slowly.
Appropriately enough, it evokes works such as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Like that opus, Black Inked Pearl is a work of incredible linguistic creativity. I do not know how many words Finnegan invented in the book—one Amazon.com reviewer’s claim of “over 2000” certainly beggars belief and surely overstates things considerable—but it seems that scarcely a page goes by without a neologism or a re-imagining of an existing word into a new sense. Although devoted fans of Joyce may find Finnegan’s work sadly lacking in opacity and abstruseness, the rest of us will have to be content with a text that we can read and enjoy and ten pages of end-notes to explain the references and sources we might not otherwise understand.
The book’s syntax—even in prose portions—is often unexpected and poetic. This small-scale act of ostranenie (“defamiliarization”) forces the reader to slow down to understand it and, in so doing, reconsider a naively representational understanding of language. This problematization of “simple” reading extends to the the
Consider the following prose sentence, for instance, which scans like verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins (even down to an alternate orthographic representation of what Hopkins would have rendered in verse as “seemèd”):
“Then seem-ed she in dream to wander through the gardens sweet, as earth worm, mole under the soil, bird lighting on the boughs.”
And like Hopkins’s lush poetic rhapsodies, Black Inked Pearl is firmly rooted in an intense, erotically charged vision of Christianity, one that owes more to the Song of Songs than it does to the Gospels or to Paul (although these are certainly not absent). The yearning for her lover expressed by the protagonist, Kate, blends with religion in a way that only an author with a deep respect for belief—in the etymological sense of “be-love”—could craft. Finnegan references Christian hymns and themes, but mixes them with other ideas gained from her field work in a mélange that references everything from African tellings of the Garden of Eden – directly quoted from Finnegan’s fieldwork—to Shakespeare, and from Wittgenstein to Homer. The layering here goes beyond just quotation: Finnegan’s text echoes the structures, syntax, and themes of many of these works. She verbally generates a stew of words and ideas that mimic the primal chaos, the waters upon which the Spirit of God moved to create the world.
Although a mystical Christianity pervades Black Inked Pearl, it is the ground the story rests on. The tale is not preachy or moralistic. Instead it takes belief seriously enough to engage with it, push it, and interrogate it.
Black Inked Pearl is certainly not a folkloristic scholarly work. It is instead a work that could not exist without Finnegan’s years of work in the field. It is redolent with themes that folklorists with interest in vernacular religion and in myth and its psychological interpretation will find intriguing. Structured in these terms, Black Inked Pearl is a myth of loss, longing, and discovery that transcends the boundaries of the sacred and profane, one that binds the earth and the cosmos and shows them intertwined and vibrant with each other. From the earth to the gates of heaven, from Ireland to Africa, the tale moves seamlessly between dream and reality, opening new vistas on each.
Black Inked Pearl will not appeal to all readers. It is a work that requires—and rewards—a level of patience that most readers will probably not sustain. But for those who want to see how a lifetime of research can influence the creative process, the reward is worth the effort. Even just dipping in for the sure luxuriousness of the language reveals a beauty seldom seen in prose works.
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-16-2
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-17-9
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-18-6
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“A highly unusual story filled with literary and biblical illusions and new words.”, Joyce Irene Whalley, Author ofThe Art of Calligraphy and A History of Children’s Book Illustration, Previously Keeper, Victoria and Albert Museum London
“Amazing! I enjoyed it tremendously; it’s light, floating, visual – I am back in Donegal of a long time ago – good …” –Dasck Eve Defin, Literature teacher, Birmingham, Author of the historical memoir Indulgence
“It all started to hang together for me and become increasingly clear as a message for me and where I am at the moment – to open myself to new areas of experience, some of which may be painful (I hope not!); the message of the book is that there is a route to be found. I welcome the contact with things beyond my normal frontiers. It has been a valuable experience reading it.”- Jim Graham, School Counsellor, Southampton, England
“The book-poem-narrative is very exciting and touches my heart in many ways — poetic, personal, verbal/creative, emotional …“ – Patrick Bond, Nature poet, Lewes East Sussex
“It’s certainly a big change from Ruth’s earlier books, which I happen to admire very much. I loved the bits where the poetry is so closely linked with her childhood memories.” – Professor Paul Thompson, Oral historian, London
“I’m reading (and enjoying) The Black-Inked Pearl. Echoes of Joyce, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s narrative style in Sunset Song …” – Morag Grant, Scottish music researcher
“I’ve been enjoying the very evocative chapters on Donegal. I like the way it plays with language and the poetic stream of consciousness. and there’s definitely a strong sense of a teenager awakening to adulthood in all sorts of ways!” –Janet Maybin, Schools literacy specialist, The Open University
“A lovely novel. What an extraordinary achievement, to switch from academic writing to this imaginative and exploratory fiction. I saw some of the author’s scholarly preoccupations coming through, notably the role of memory and quotation, and I loved the way Kate’s reflections are so bound up with poetry. The assemblage and juxtaposition of genres struck me as having an effect very much in keeping with African-language prose fiction, where genre boundaries are constantly breached and where long passages of oral poetry might be incorporated into a descriptive or narrative sequence. Very many very warm congratulations on pulling this off. I was fascinated to read about the starting point in a long series of dreams: the novel itself is a dream.”, Professor Karin Barber, Departments of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham, UK
“Different, fresh. I loved the stream of consciousness Joycean style. Trance-like.” – Denise Saul, Poet and fiction writer, Winner of Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice 2007, London
“Thoroughly enjoyable.” – Yvette Purdy, University Course Manager, Milton Keynes
“Gripping.” – Rachel Backshall, Classics student, University of Oxford