Review 23: The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
This delightfully unusual young adult novel far exceeded my rather average expectations and manages to merge a wonderful main character with the rather unusual events that befall him into a lovely, heartwarming story with a vaguely subversive humour running through it. Another Carnegie contender, I can see why it was shortlisted, particularly as it is one of the more light-hearted novels on the shortlist. This is the story of Pepper Roux, whose aunt had a vision, when he was born, of St. Constance telling her that Pepper would die before he turned 14. He has been protected from anything that might harm him his whole life and been watched over by his anxious mother and zealous aunt whilst his sea captain father is away. We meet Pepper on his fourteenth birthday when he resolutely does not die - in a moment of frustration he boards his fathers ship and pretends to be Captain Roux.
What follows is a series of vignettes in Pepper's life as he moves from one place to another and discovers that people see what they want to see. He poses as a butcher, a telegraph deliverer and a horse tamer amongst others until his good intentions get him into trouble and he leaves for his next destination. Pepper makes an incredibly charming hero and one that young adults will relate to. Whilst hopefully none of the readers have grown up thinking they would die on their fourteenth birthday, the feeling of having your life planned out for you by the adults around you is a familiar feeling for teenagers. Pepper's discovery that you make your own destiny will ring true for many teenage minds, I am sure. Pepper spends a large portion of the novel believing that he is bringing death on the people he travels with and spends his journeys searching the sky for the descending angels to take him to his death. The realisation that the criminal who takes too many sleeping pills dies because he took too many sleeping pills rather than because the angels 'missed' Pepper also reinforces the lesson that we need to take responsibility for our own actions and not blame ourselves for others mistakes. The novel has a heartwarming and satisfying conclusion which is definitely in the fairy tale style of happy endings - but a slightly subverted fairy tale. My only criticism is that it got a little confusing what was going on in the climax of the action and I struggled to imagine the setting that McCaughrean was trying to describe. Despite that, the town where the novel ends has a lovely incident which really demonstrates the importance, as well as the satisfaction that can be gained, from helping others. The novel is not based in the world we know but is all the better for it.