Time for another novella from the Fairlight Moderns series, this time the tale of a little boy named Pepper. He’s eight years old, used to live with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and knows that he doesn’t see the world in quite the same way as other people. He dislikes loud noises, finds it difficult to read people’s emotions but finds numbers very easy to tackle: indeed, counting often keeps him calm when the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Now Pepper lives with Uncle Dan in Arkansas, but he’s having trouble adapting. In fact, he’s beginning to suspect that Uncle Dan isn’t really his uncle at all. But how can one lost little boy get hold of his mother when the only phone number he knows is missing its crucial three-digit area code?
It all happens one day on a school trip to the local pizza place and games arcade. Pepper is hiding from his classmates when he meets a man who introduces himself as Uncle Dan and tells Pepper that his (Pepper’s) mother has gone to heaven and that he (Uncle Dan) will be looking after him now. Pepper is suspicious – he remembers faces, and he can’t remember ever seeing Uncle Dan before, but Uncle Dan knows that he likes ice cream and Dr Pepper, so it must be OK, right? Pepper gets into Uncle Dan’s car with him and goes home with him – but home is a very long way away. When he gets there everything is strange: Uncle Dan has chickens (which Pepper likes, except the rooster) and he doesn’t understand at first what Pepper likes to eat (yes to bacon, no to eggs), and makes him go fishing and watch football at the weekends. Pepper knows something is up, but he has no idea what to do about it… until Uncle Dan finds himself obliged to enrol Pepper in the local elementary school.
Seeing things through Pepper’s eyes makes the story immensely moving, as we instinctively understand the things this little boy can’t. I thought Golightly did well in conveying the complexity of Pepper’s mind and the challenge for any child of finding their way out of a dangerous situation. It’s a terrifying picture of how easy it can be for children to be abducted, especially when they’re vulnerable and perhaps don’t understand the social contract quite as well as the average child. (This all reminded me very strongly of the book I had when I was little, that 1980s classic We Can Say No! which taught children never to go off with a stranger – anyone else have this?) It also makes for some moments of almost unbearable tension, especially towards the end, though I was impressed by Pepper’s resourcefulness.
This viewpoint does mean that we don’t always understand as much as we might like to about other people in the story. We know that Uncle Dan has lost his own son, but how does he really think that plucking a random child from a crowd will supplant that loss? Why did he choose Pepper? How did he get hold of a (forged) birth certificate? But these lacunae don’t really affect the main narrative thrust of the tale, which manages to feel much more dense and gripping than you expect. Something for those who enjoyed Room, offering a similar picture of a shocking situation through the eyes of a child.
After this and Inside the Bone Box, I’m really looking forward to exploring the other novellas that Fairlight have released in this series…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review