I was introduced to Geraldine McCaughrean through the Amazon Vine program when I selected, almost randomly, her latest book "The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen". Right away I was hooked and wanted to read more. Her writing style is so fluid and simultaneously outrageous and believable. Her characters are larger than life and utterly impossible, yet utterly irresistible and lovable. "Sunshine Queen" was one of the wildest rides I've ever been on and I wanted to go again and again.
"The Death-Defying Pepper Roux," while quite different in setting, plot and tone, still showcases McCaughrean's zany style, and this book was no disappointment.
Paul "Pepper" Roux wakes upon his fourteenth birthday knowing that today would be the day of his death, as foretold by St. Constance through his Aunty Mireille before his birth. Pepper tries to be sanguine and accept his fate as dutifully as he's accepted everything else in his truncated life - thrice-weekly confession, calloused knees from excessive praying, his aunt's constant chastisements and remonstrances. But, really, when you're being chased, what do you do? You run, right?
And so Pepper does. Fleeing from the saints and angels, he runs right out of his own life. First he takes up his father's life as captain of the "L'Ombrage" where the doting steward Duchesse ("the Duchess") cares for his every need. Unfortunately, the saints and angels catch up with "Captain" Roux, but they miss and kill another man (one who was rather in need of killing, but that doesn't assuage Pepper's guilt). When the ship sinks (not exactly accidentally), Pepper decides, Jonah-like, to save the others by going down with the ship himself so that the saints and angels won't inadvertently harm anyone else in their pursuit of him.
But again the bumbling angels can't seem to manage their simple assignment. Pepper wakes up aboard a Malay ship and ends up in Marseilles where he becomes "Pepper Salami", counter boy at the delicatessen of a large department store. Pepper figures that by working around meat slicers and other sharp implements, he is giving the angels fair chance at him. However, an unfortunate misunderstanding involving notes in an overhead pneumatic cash system compel Pepper to once again flee for his life. Poor Pepper, he was only trying to bring everyone happiness. (Warning: don't read that scene in public. It is laugh out loud funny and people will wonder what you're smoking.)
And so, like a French version of "Catch Me If You Can", Pepper sprints through a series of other lives - the journalist "Pepper Papier" who writes happy stories, the horse boy who doesn't understand the nature of the horses he cares for - or where they're headed for, the telegram boy "Zee" who only delivers good news, the husband of Yvette Roche - whose real husband died on L'Ombrage, and "Legion Roche" the French foreign legion recruit. In life after life, Pepper seeks only to keep the saints and angels at bay while dispensing happiness along the way. But time after time his attempts to dispense happiness only get muddled and make him more and more enemies. And as if that many human enemies isn't enough, the saints and angels keep catching up with him. Well, in their own bungling way, that is. But no matter how bad the troubles, there's always a sense that we shouldn't get too mournful.
In addition to being as wild a ride as you're likely to find, this book is also both endearing and philosophical. Rarely in literature do you find characters as deeply lovable as Pepper, Duchesse and Yvette Roche. This is, of course, because the characters are not really human - they are better than human, more human than any real human could be.
The book is also both darkly pessimistic and brilliantly hopeful at the same time. Pepper confronts very grim realities of human nature for such a young, naïve and trusting soul: death, fraud, theft, capriciousness, injustice, greed, and, ultimately, personal betrayal by the very people closest to him (or rather, those who should have been closest to him). But through it all, Pepper retains his own goodness, his trust and his desire to help and spread happiness.
McCaughrean has a flair for endings. Every element of the story, even those which the reader has forgotten, falls neatly into place. And although the ending is remarkably chipper and fairy-tale perfect for such a grim book, it doesn't at all feel forced or cheesy. It feels simply inevitable, as if there were no other possible way the story could end.
Because of a number of mature themes, I'd recommend parental guidance for younger kids (those under 12 or 13 perhaps), but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Geraldine McCaughrean appears to be sadly underappreciated, at least in the U.S. Do yourself a favor and discover her writing - you'll be hooked.