Home Fiction Diving for Pearls has grit in the oyster—shimmering debut from Jamie O’Connell

Diving for Pearls has grit in the oyster—shimmering debut from Jamie O’Connell

Diving for Pearls|Jamie O’Connell|Transworld|ISBN 9781781620557|€13.99

by Catherine Murphy

Great literature can come from anything, from the journey of one person or the experiences of many; Diving For Pearls is more a tale of a moment, of a happening and a time, than of one person’s experience within that time. The voice is split between many different characters, each one well crafted and real. Jamie O’Connell knows exactly what he’s doing; from the first pages I knew I was in for a treat and the book delivered, over and over again.

The story follows the death of a woman, in Dubai, and is told through the people who knew her or who were affected by her passing, but not by their experiences of her: the brilliance here is how the story is told without really telling the story at all. Seven main characters pull us deftly through the book; each one has their own complete arc, with family, partners and friends, and as the book progresses the characters’ stories begin slowly to merge and twist together. We see reflections of the others, of the past; what happened on the night the woman died is shown as if through a gauze, through the eyes of each one. 

Aasim, Lydia, Siobhan, Trevor, Joan, Gete and Tahir are all very different people. Aasim is not likable, he is selfish and spoiled and he uses his money to make friends, but faced with a crisis he is forced to be honest with himself. Lydia is truthful only with herself and no one else. She is brutal in her business dealing and tragically lovable. I’m fairly sure the fact that I adored her throughout says more about me than her, but she was so broken and so strong, I could not help falling in love.

Siobhan needs to wake up to herself. Spending her husband’s money, she’s carved a comfortable life in Dubai but she’s lonely. She phones and texts home constantly, calling her mam and her brother, and yet her existence is superficial, her temptations are the new handbags and the knock off watches she buys every day and she all too often leaves the maid to deal with real life. Like a child with too many gifts at Christmas, she buys more and more of the shiny things she craves but her soul is tired and she can’t see it. 

The story moves smoothly between Dublin and Dubai, often tied to both. Dublin is clear on the page; the descriptions of Dubai are beautifully shiny and grotesque.

Her brother Trevor is a Dublin lad, his head filled with getting laid and his heart wrecked over the one unattainable girl he never really had and at the same time never let go. Trevor was by far my favourite character—I’d like to think he told Siobhan a few things off the pages, by the end. 

Joan is Siobhan’s and Trevor’s mother and there’s a great subtlety to her voice. I started off finding myself irritated by certain aspects of her character but with reason comes empathy, and O’Connell gives all the reasons.

Gete is Siobhan’s maid and through her eyes we see a very different side of Dubai— the empty rich pickings, and of family. Tahir is a taxi driver and his story made me hate the truth of a regime cruelly and inaccurately called justice

The story moves smoothly between Dublin and Dubai, often tied to both. Dublin is clear on the page; the descriptions of Dubai are beautifully shiny and grotesque. I was left feeling both awed and scared by it at the same time. How little we appreciate our freedoms until suddenly they’re not there. 

At first we see the bright lights:

Dubai looks like a computer game, too clean to be real. He likes looking at the tops of the buildings, all different shapes as if they’re wearing hats.

But then gradually the shine peels away and the gold veneer becomes tarnished. Trevor starts to see the truths of the way things are:

‘What are those cars with the sand on them?’ Trevor asks. ‘The ones in the car park.’

‘That’s people who legged it. If you get in trouble out here you head straight to the airport. You don’t hang around for the police to take your passport.’

Later in the book Jamie O’Connell brings back mention of the cars with the sand on them: reality hurts, through that simple imagery.  

Rarely does an author manage so well to write such a diverse group of characters keeping each one entirely believable, and the reader invested in the different outcomes. Jamie O’Connell holds tender control over his story and still brings the literary magic of the written word to the page. There were so many beautiful sentences; I read slowly so as not to miss anything and I was rewarded a hundred times over with the beauty of the text. I may never go to Dubai but I won’t forget the stories I read here. 


Catherine Murphy @scribblingink1 

Eastwood