22 JULY 1995, Page 28

The Scarlet Alphabet

Brian Unsworth

PEARL by Christopher Bigsby Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £15.99, pp. 234 In Pearl Christopher Bigsby has given us a sequel to his novel Hester, which is itself a prequel to, and recasting of, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The genealogy sounds somewhat clotted, stated thus, but the two, taken together, consti- tute a kind of grafting job, very skilfully carried out, with new narrative shoots growing round the older, marvellous, story.

Here, as in the earlier book, the author adopts a style of prose and a tone of voice not much distinguishable from those of the mid-19th century, when Hawthorne's book was written. This, which cannot have been easy, is done with remarkable consistency and stylistic resource. There is no sense of strain; the writing is assured, eloquent, musical. But it is, of course, more than a question of language. No story-teller speaks entirely in his own voice; some part of the identity is always borrowed.

Hawthorne's borrowing was fused with his own most intimate experiences and assumptions and with the general beliefs of his time and place. The same cannot be said for Mr Bigsby's. The point is an obvi- ous one but it is worth stressing here, because it determines the reader's response.

This second novel is less dependent on the original. Pearl, the child of Hester Prynne's sinful union with the Puritan minister, Arthur Dimmsdale, returns to England to claim her inheritance. In making this passage from the New World to the Old, she reverses Hester's voyage of 20 years previously, returning to the scene of her mother's girlhood and disastrous marriage. On this framework of reversal, the author contrives a complex pattern of symbolic parallels. Pearl uses the same travelling bag her mother used. Her ship is called 'Revenge', as her mother's was called 'Hope'. She falls for a clergyman during the voyage, just as her mother did. (This one is weak too, but in a different, altogether more sinister way.) This symbolic frame and the conflicts that underlie it are reinforced by a very accom- plished use of natural description, both of land and sea — and particularly in the gradations of light and play of sunshine and shadow.

I must admit to a certain lack of sympa- thy for books written as sequels to other people's celebrated books, and I express this to myself as an inability fully to see the point of the undertaking. But there are passages in this novel where the point becomes abundantly visible. One such is when Pearl, exploring the dark and gloomy house where Chillingworth once lived, finds his subterranean laboratory, aban- doned 20 years before, holds up a beaker to the light and sees the crystals liquefy and change colour. Past and present meet in this gesture, which is both intensely physi- cal and strongly symbolic — and impossible to realise fully without the emotive force of Hawthorne's original.

With Pearl's arrival in Landon we leave behind the tormented New England con- science for a broader, more rumbustious world, which seems at times closer to Dick- ens than Hawthorne. There is a contested will, an evil lawyer, a murderous conspira- cy. All of this is handled with a sure sense of narrative and eye for detail. The gallery of grotesques that Pearl encounters in the Cheapside tavern is one of the best things in the book; and the Hostess, Mistress Nib- bins, is a genuinely comic character.

In view of the impressive gifts here dis- played, it may not be presumptuous to express the hope that Mr Bigsby will give up grafting for a while and try his hand at planting instead.