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BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

Image Description: The cover of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter has nature and sea images in an iridescent pearl with overlaid images of guns, ropes, keys and diving helmets in black.

1886, BANNIN BAY, AUSTRALIA.

The Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them on these shores beyond shining pearls and shells like soup plates – the things her father has promised will make their fortune.

Ten years later and Charles Brightwell, now the bay’s most prolific pearler, goes missing from his ship while out at sea. Whispers from the townsfolk suggest mutiny and murder, but headstrong Eliza, convinced there is more to the story, refuses to believe her father is dead.

It falls to her to ask the questions no one else dares consider. But in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, Eliza soon learns that the truth can cost more than pearls, and she must decide just how much she is willing to pay – and how far she is willing to go – to find it . . . 

Compelling historical fiction featuring a brave and determined female protagonist, a quest to find a missing father, and some dark family secrets? It’s safe to say that the premise of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, Lizzie Pook’s debut novel, checks all my bookish boxes – and I’m pleased to report that the book itself did not disappoint!

Set in the fictional Australian town of Bannin Bay, a pearling hub that is home to Eliza Brightwell and her family. When Eliza’s beloved father – the town’s most successful pearler – goes missing during a voyage, it doesn’t take long for rumours to begin to fly across the small settlement, or for long-simmering tensions between the various native and immigrant populations to boil over. Refusing to believe in either the official explanation for her father’s ‘murder’ or her brother’s suspiciously swift attempts to move on from it, Eliza becomes determined to get to the truth. Teaming up with Axel, a newly-arrived itinerant entrepreneur, Eliza determines to ask the questions that no one else will and find her father – no matter what the cost.

So begins an investigation that will take Eliza, Axel and the reader beneath the glamorous veneer of Bannin Bay and into the sweltering decay and rampant corruption that lies beneath the surface of south sea pearls. Like Sarah Waters and Elizabeth Macneal, Lizzie Pook is unafraid of portraying the seedy side of history and Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter confronts the often brutal inequalities and prejudices of the period, including the displacement and persecution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the use and mistreatment of Chinese and Malaysian labourers, and the challenges faced by women within patriarchal colonial power-structures.

Although Bannin Bay is fictional, Pook has modelled the geography on parts of the north-west Kimberley coastline and on historical pearling hubs. In an extremely interesting historical and cultural note at the end of the novel, she acknowledges the First Peoples of the land in which the story takes place and explains the complex and difficult history of Australia’s pearl industry, as well as the peoples and events that inspired the novel. As a UK reader with shockingly little knowledge of Australia’s early history, it was fascinating – and shocking -to learn more about this history, both through the novel and via Pook’s concluding essay. Although Eliza’s search for her father – and the mystery of what happened to him – remains the driving force of the novel, I was impressed with the way in which Pook weaves the structural and social inequalities of the period – and the inherent colonialism of settler society – into the novel, and to accurately reflect such a complex social milieu.

I also really enjoyed getting to know Eliza, who makes for a strong-willed and determined protagonist who, despite her forthright demeanour, never felt ‘out of time’ in the way some protagonists do. Indeed, Eliza remains very aware throughout the novel of the vulnerabilities of her position and teaming up with Axel is, in part, a way for her to gain access to otherwise male-dominated spaces, and to pursue lines of investigation that might otherwise be closed to her. This practicality and pragmatism – which is also portrayed through the decisions of other characters, such as Eliza’s friend Min – really conveys the realities of life in an outback settlement, where the social order and societal norms frequently blur and fray at the edges.

I also found the mystery of what happened to Eliza’s father – and how this ties into wider life within Bannin Bay – to be compelling. Although rich with historical detail and relatively slow in terms of pacing, I found myself eagerly turning the pages as the wider conspiracy unfolded. The first few chapters were, admittedly, a little slow for me – the plot doesn’t really get going until about 50 pages in – but I enjoyed the establishment of character and setting so much that I didn’t mind the relatively sedate start. And once the plot does kick in, I was fully engaged with Eliza and her quest.

Overall, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is a richly realised and compelling slice of historical fiction that is perfect for fans of Elizabeth Macneal, Hannah Kent, and Sarah Waters. Replete with tiny details that create a real sense of time and place, the novel combines a dark family mystery with a vivid depiction of life in an Australian pearling settlement, making it the perfect read for historical fiction fans wanting to broaden their geographical horizons!

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook is published by Mantle Books and is published TODAY so is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour. The blog tour begins today and runs until 18 March so check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

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