Though written for children, it’s clear from the wit and dark undertones sprinkling the pages that Geraldine McCaughrean wrote The Death Defying Pepper Roux with adults in mind too.
The tale begins with Paul Roux, nicknamed Pepper, reaching his 14th birthday – a momentous event considering he’s been told since birth that he would die before this date. This grave proclamation has been made by Aunt Mireille, an overly religious saint-obsessed woman who has controlled Pepper’s meagre life, mainly by reminding him at every turn that it is due to end before he turns 14.
But when his birthday, and, if you believe Aunt Mireille, his deathday, arrives with Pepper Roux intact, and rather than wait to have his life removed from him by hordes of fiery angels he flees and begins a series of adventures, hiding in other people’s lives.
It’s a wonderfully imaginative journey that requires the reader to leave their grown up scepticism at the door and accept Geraldine’s reminder that: “People see what they expect to see. Don’t they? Or do they see what they choose?”From ship’s captain to butcher to newspaper reporter to soldier, Pepper swings from role to role with ease, ever fearful that he’s running out of time.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to the tale that makes its richness all the easier to consume. Geraldine’s passion for words is evident on every page, with linguistic gymnastics adding to the pleasure. At moments her sentences are pure poetry (“the air felt quilted with salt and sweat and stale demons”), lifting the prose to a loftiness that would surely tempt Pepper to climb up to for a better view.
While I was bemused by her decision to set the novel in France, I merely glossed over the occasional French words and assume the book’s younger readers will do the same. The pace, the colourful characters and the lightness of touch, all of which make it work for children also make it inviting for adults wanting some entertainment at the end of a long day.
But the key mystery at the centre of the novel is as dark as dark can be – why does Aunt Mireille believe Pepper would die before turning 14? What motivation could she possibly have for terrorising a small child and his family?
Other moral issues are also toyed with, particularly the idea of guilt, which Pepper battles with daily – guilt over his growing list of lies (“Pepper had been left with the taste of soap in his mouth every time he spoke – or heard – a lie”), and, particularly, guilt over continuing to defy to expectations and evade death. Yet of all the characters he is the purest, despite his endearing flaws, and brings a little happiness to every life he touches.