Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall
Pat ‘Pearly’ Gates has achieved a lot in his life and gets considerable satisfaction in his achievements. He has a reputation as a former Otago rugby player and believes he would have been an All Black but for sporting injuries. He runs a successful real-estate agency in a provincial South Island town, of which he is the second-term mayor. Popular, happily married, well established, he cuts and impressive figure, especially in his own eyes.
Pearly is the centre of the novel and undeniably at the centre of his small town, at least in his own eyes. As a character, he is instantly recognisable and relatable. Like all of us, he has both strengths and weaknesses to his personality. When he fails, it’s normally because of a choice he made with the best of intentions.
As the main character, he very much takes the stage. Despite the entire novel being from his viewpoint, and some questionable choices, Pearly is likeable. His foibles are not major mistakes in the scheme of things, and it’s interesting to see a character narrate their inner thoughts so perfectly.
Pearly Gates is a bit of a slow burner of a novel. This isn’t a negative though – it perfectly reflects its setting. Living in a provincial South Island town myself, this book nailed the portrayal. Pearly as mayor immediately conjured up someone from real life I could relate to. The supporting characters – from Gumbo the school caretaker, to Pearly’s wife Helen, and every other character – are well rounded, familiar and relatable. Each relationship is well thought out and, once again, realistic.
The place too is a wonderful reflection of our country. The family businesses, small town feel is perfectly captured. So too is Pearly’s family farm. The description of the tree wind breaks and thistles lying gleaming on the paddocks was spot on. It immediately transformed me straight back to long summer holidays spent on my grandfather’s farm.
Marshall masterfully keeps you reading despite the perceived slow burn. There’s plenty to keep readers on their toes, never really knowing what is waiting on the next page. The title of the book and the name of the character combined to make me overthink the story. However, Marshall keeps it believable, simple and authentic.
With Pearly Gates, Marshall has managed to craft both a love letter to and a critique of these small towns that form the backbone of our country.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
Random House NZ, RRP $38.00