One of the oddest children’s books I’ve ever read. The story isn’t a fantasy, but it is fantastical. Pepper Roux, age fourteen, isn’t exactly a hero or an anti-hero, but some Gilbert and Sullivan-esque admixture of Don Quixote, The Great Imposter, and Tom Jones.
On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realizing it was the day he must die. His heart cannoned like a billiard ball off some soft green wall of his innards This had to be the day everyone had been waiting for–and he was terrified he would disappoint them, make a poor showing, let people down.
It was all Aunt Mireille’s fault. Unmarried Aunt Mireille lodged with her married sister. So when Madame Roux gave birth to a lovely little boy, Aunt Mireille was first to be introduced. Leaning over the cot, she sucked on her big yellow teeth and said, with a tremor in her voice, “To think he’ll be dead by fourteen, le pauvre. . . Saint Constance told me so in a dream last night.”
When Pepper runs away and evades his predicted demise, he never questions Auntie Mireille’s prophecy, just assumes that he’s managed to outrun and trick Death for a while. Pepper “dies” many times and resurrects himself in a a series of new identities, everything from meat cutter to telegraph boy to horse tamer (not to mention ship’s captain and newspaper reporter). And still Aunt Mireille and Saint Constance hover over his lives like Nemesis, and Pepper involves himself in more and more misadventures until his time finally runs out in the belfry of the Constance Tower.
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is a picaresque novel of an over-protected, innocent, yet fear-filled boy who somehow manages to navigate the world and defy death and despair. It’s strange enough, even bizarre, that I don’t what children will make of it. Will they be delighted by Pepper’s outlandish death-defying adventures or just confused? Ms. McCaughrean does bring all the threads of the story together at the end in a masterful way, tying up the loose threads, and making some sense of the seemingly unconnected plot lines in a satisfying way.
But it’s still an eccentric, weird, oddball, wacky, offbeat story. If you’re up for the peculiar and the picaresque, you may enjoy the ride. (Yes, I must credit my trusty thesaurus for the adjectives in that penultimate sentence. Thank goodness for thesauruses.)