The Pearl of Tiger Bay
by Gabrielle Wang
Published by Penguin
96 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Annie and her parents arrive in Tiger Bay, a beautiful coastal town loosely based on the Australian town of Lorne. Annie's veterinarian father is descended from a local sea-captain whose seaside house has become their home. The family looks forward to getting away from the rat race.
In a former hotel on the cliffs, once frequented by movie stars and European aristocrats, lives widowed Madame Olenka, a retired theatrical performer, who has been alone for the last 30 years. She has her groceries delivered and never sees anyone. The hotel is falling apart; the city council wants to knock it down and banish Madame Olenka to a jail-like retirement home run by the bizarrely-named Y. Knott Flushem (the novel has a number of these Dickens-style punning or appropriate names).
Why is one of the councilors trying so hard to push this through? Who is the strange little girl Annie is seeing with Madame Olenka -- could she be the ghost of little Beatrice, Olenka's drowned daughter? And how can Annie and her new friend Jin Chen raise the money to renovate the hotel so the old lady doesn't lose her home?
Gabrielle Wang won a number of awards for her first novel, The Garden of Empress Cassia, a fantasy. This novel, her second, also has a number of fantasy elements, though they are laid on lightly -- a mail-delivering magpie and a magical grandmother among others. Really, it's more a case of fantasizing than fantasy. Wouldn't we all love to live in a place like Tiger Bay? Then there's the gang of kids helping the old lady keep her home and the "Let's do a show!" aspect that most of us remember from old Hollywood movies.
In some ways The Pearl of Tiger Bay reminds me of Odo Hirsh's Hazel Green stories, which are set in a wonderful block of flats in a city somewhere in a fictional country. Like the Hazel Green stories, Gabrielle Wang's tale features a group of friends with individual skills who use those skills to solve the problem at hand. The colorful young artist Dash is reminiscent of Hirsh's mathematical genius. As in the Hirsh tales, the few adults who play a role in the story are eccentric and fascinating. Jin's grandmother has magical abilities and can handle ghosts, but doesn't speak much English. Madame Olenka and her mentor, the Great Mironov, have their own background stories, which we learn near the end.
On the whole, The Pearl of Tiger Bay is a gentle, old-fashioned story. Nobody swears. Nobody gets hurt, really, though there is the back story of the drowned child. Even the not-so-nice boy, with the unlikely but appropriate name of Doo Doo, is won over eventually. You can safely give it to your eight-year-old, who will probably also enjoy the fact that adults in the novel are mostly in the background, except those needed to play a role. It's not that they aren't important, but the children do all the problem-solving, just as they do in all those novels about five children and a dog cracking the mystery baffling local police.
Annie is, perhaps, too good to be true, turning a dull little town around and giving the local kids something to do five minutes after she arrives, but hey, it's all part of the kind of fantasy children enjoy. And it's a nice break from the real-life dramas that have taken over so much children's and YA fiction in recent years. | July 2004
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.