The Death-defying Pepper Roux.
Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by
Oxford University Press 2009
Paperback 6.99 [pounds sterling]
Strange how things work out. This summer, for the first time ever, I took a holiday in France (south Normandy to be exact). I was hugely surprised at what a wonderful time I had, finding the place to be very French (really?) in a way that I can't quite explain. That was where I read The Death-defying Pepper Roux which, ironically, is also very, very French in a way that's hard to explain.
To begin with, well, yes, the book is set in France (this does help). It tells the story of Pepper Roux who, having been told that he will die on his fourteenth birthday and then lived his life anticipating this fate, finds himself the following day, despite several near misses, still very much alive. A wonderfully entertaining and a very strange journey around France then ensues, from the Bay of Biscay, to Marseilles, the Camargue and Aigues-Mortes, in which Pepper attempts to make a new life for himself, despite everything that fate throws against him.
No matter which Geraldine McCaughrean book you read, the one thing that sets them apart is the sparkle of the language. Cue trite sentence: anyone delivering literacy in a school will find this book to be an absolute treasure trove. But seriously, she has that knack of creating snatches of writing which are truly memorable, For instance, when Pepper finds himself still alive--'Was the clock in heaven's parlour running slow?'--or when describing the flocks of rooks in the trees--'the sunny, clumping crowns of the elms swarmed with blackness, like heads teeming with lice'. At times the language verges on the genuinely poetic--'a broom-bristle rain sweeping people off the seaside promenade'--so that you find yourself breaking off from the story to appreciate the words. It is a genuine pleasure to run some of the sentences back and forth through your mind.
This is a wonderful book which might one day even be thought of as a classic (cue inverted commas). Certainly anyone who loves words and language should make sure they lay their hands on a copy. As to what type of book it is, it's hard to say. It's a little like that series of adverts advertising the Renault Clio, in which the two characters spent episode after episode remarking 'Papa' and 'Nicole' (or 'Nicole' and 'Papa'): very strange but curiously fascinating. I do know that it won't be long before I shall be re-reading Pepper Roux, and that I know I will appreciate it just as much, if not more, a second time.