Tig's Reviews > The Death-Defying Pepper Roux

The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
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Jun 01, 2011

it was amazing

This is a rollicking, rumbustious book which careers along wildly as young Pepper Roux skips, lurches and dives through life in an attempt to outrun his own fate. It has been predicted by Saint Constance that he will die on his fourteenth birthday, and so he runs to escape the angels that are surely coming for him. The pace takes your breath away as you follow the twists and turns of life that befall Pepper. The authentic French setting offers a marvellous array of situations into which young Pepper is thrust (or thrusts himself – one of the big themes of the book is whether we make our own fate): ship’s captain, telegraph boy, horse trainer, beggar, patient, journalist, legionnaire. He survives off his wits and own instinct towards the good in all things, and they take him far.

At one level, it’s a very simple, almost childlike story. On another, it’s deeply thoughtful and tender. The language is stunning: it sings off the page, piling vivid imagery on stinging observation in a baroque style that’s both richly inventive and beautifully simple. ‘The sky was hysterical with stars’. Doesn’t that startling adjective work perfectly to describe a clear star-crowded sky (and something of Pepper’s state of mind as he looks at it, a sense of the loss of control he is feeling so that even beauty that he’s seen a thousand times before seems teetering dangerously near the edge of insanity?). ‘The words rattled down on Pepper like a million horsehoe nails: too hard and sharp, too bent out of shape to be useful’. Perfect – and bonkers. It’s an image that can’t be picked apart (one million? That would bury him. What are they rattling on – his flesh?) But in its own mad sub-sensical way, it tells us exactly the feeling the words give Pepper. We understand it, without having to construe its sense. ‘Even in Pepper’s own skull, those words slopped about like molten lead’. Yes! That works brilliantly, for me: the dull threat of molten lead, the sullen onomatopoeia of ‘slopped’ echoing Pepper’s grim sense of distress. There’s a passage about angels, fourth paragraph from the end of the book, that I won’t quote here because it gives too much away, but watch out for it when it comes. It says so much, so beautifully, and with the most startling original imagery. This kind of writing is dangerous for the author to attempt: it teeters between whimsy on one side and pretentious obscurity on the other. I think McCaughrean pulls it off perfectly.

You could say the plot is a simple shaggy dog tale of an adventure, with nods to magic realism as it blithely sells the reader the idea that everyone in the tales sees in fourteen-year-old Pepper Roux what they want to find: captain, villain, husband and ultimately, and most happily, son. On another level, it’s a fable about innocence and gullibility. Margaret Fisher, the noted children’s critic, once remarked that ‘it is not easy to draw a genuinely good character and make [them] interesting rather than exasperating to readers.’ At the heart of this book is Pepper’s engagement with all humanity despite being surrounded by brutality and indifference to suffering. Nor does McCaughgrean choose to let Pepper be disabused of the unfashionable beliefs he holds. By the end of the book he may have had one of his deepest convictions disproved, but his faith in angels remains, an interesting and pleasing decision. The book treats lightly of such issues as under age sex and cross dressing without ever writing anything that might cause the most puritanical of readers to raise an eyebrow.
The language and the characters are skilful. I haven’t said enough about the plot. It races along at too fast a pace for us often to be able to stop and say ‘Yes, but…’ and most of the time, we just go with it. But there were moments where I feared the author was allowing herself to create inexplicable events to get Pepper out of particularly bad holes and that troubled me: even fantasy ought to abide by its own logic. It was only as the book drew to a close that I appreciated how finely plotted it had been. I loved learning, as Pepper does, how even the seemingly impromptu and puzzling events made sense once one could see the whole. Details that found their place in the resolution had been meticulously woven into the plot, often many chapters earlier. I do love a book that can do that: it had me slowly nodding throughout the final chapters as the author deftly revealed how each plot point had its justified place in the story. The plotting and the language alone would have made it a hugely satisfying read, but without being in the slightest bit preachy, the book also provokes deeper reflections: the idea that guardian angles come in many strange guises, that there may be patterns to our life, even though we can’t discern them, that people deceive themselves, and that goodness is its own protection.

I loved this book. I finished it with a feeling of deep satisfaction at having found such a humane, clever, poetic and funny story. It's intelligent and unafraid of writing a lot of words (so many teenage books this days read as if someone has precised them down to the bare bones.) I would put this with Holes and Millions as one of my top three children’s book reads of the past few years. If it doesn’t win the Carnegie, the book that does must be something really quite extraordinary.
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