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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: No One Knows Anything: PEARL by Mary Gordon, Pantheon Books

Try to define Company of Women author Mary Gordon’s new novel and you risk tripping over the inherent paradox of its premise: In life, nothing is simple.

What looks like a story about mothers and daughters, Catholicism and politics really travels toward the broad idea that people can never really know each other.

This is a novel about perception or, more accurately, misperception – the vast distance between one person’s truth and another’s. It’s a novel that questions its characters but never settles on one answer, a novel haunted by the narrator’s early command, “You have to trust me: It will all come later.”

Here are the nuts and bolts of Gordon’s story: Maria is a former political activist who rejected her Catholic upbringing, culminating in her decision to raise a child produced during a brief affair with a Cambodian refugee.

In 1998, she receives a call that her daughter Pearl, now 20, has chained herself to the American embassy in Dublin and is starving herself as an act of witness to mark the death of a young Irish boy.

A childhood friend named Joseph, an art collector and widower wandering the streets of Rome, joins Maria’s fight to save her daughter and soon convinces himself that he is Pearl’s only savior.

And then it gets really complicated.

Confused readers are in good company. Confusion – about religion, forgiveness, sin and love – is the one thing Gordon’s characters have in common.

Religion, or its absence, haunts them: Maria refers back to the saints and biblical verses she learned as a child, although she jettisoned Catholicism in college.

Joseph plays the role of devoted, selfless servant but continues to lose his faith in people. Pearl transforms herself into a martyr but also represents the Catholic penance for sin – she believes she caused another’s death, and therefore she must suffer for it.

Combine the complicated plot line with an anonymous narrator who constantly asks readers rhetorical questions.

But Gordon’s use of an omniscient narrator is her most artful, if sometimes heavy-handed, device. Knowing the narrator may be less important than listening to it: “I would, if I could, protect them, all of them, but I have learned that I cannot,” says the voice. Maybe it’s God, a definite possibility in this book packed with religiosity and deliberate names like Maria and Joseph. Maybe Gordon’s narrator could save the characters if it wanted; but it won’t. It’s a voice that tells their stories, that urges the characters – and readers – to come to their own conclusions.

Pearl is built on the word “perhaps.” It’s a word that won’t commit. Perhaps mothers misinterpret their daughters; perhaps one character too harshly judges another; perhaps there are multiple explanations. By the end of the book, some readers may say, perhaps these characters should stop thinking too much and get happy.

Don’t read Pearl for good dialogue or good humor. Don’t read it for a lesson on Irish political unrest or a tutorial on Catholic martyrs and saints: These make up the building blocks of the prose but not the meat of Gordon’s message. She ties up some loose ends but that’s not her ultimate objective.Like religion, like people, the book supplies no easy answers. Yet hope is Gordon’s ironic last word on the story, a story that begins with a fast and may force readers to feast on life’s questions.

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