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February 1, 2009

Pickle Me This reads Canada Reads: Fruit by Brian Francis

In Brian Francis’s not-yet-coming-of -age story Fruit, Peter Paddington is the hero of his own life. So successfully entrenched within his own perspective, he’s in the league of famed adolescent narrators Huck and Holden, though stylistically is most akin to the great Adrian Mole. Francis casts a spell with Peter’s voice, and not once does the spell ever break.

I want to protest only about how this book was sold to me, even in its quirky subtitle, “a novel about a boy and his nipples”. The first line of the blurb on the back of the book is, “Peter Paddington is a 13-year-old, fat, gay cross-dresser…”, which really didn’t immediately capture my attention, so as I read the book I was relieved to come to see that Peter Paddington is actually quite normal. Or perfectly normal from the point of view of anyone who spent a pretty tortured few (or more) years growing into themselves. Any of us who’ve ever had to work in the school library at recess in lieu of having friends, or who’d read that conditioning one’s hair with Hellman’s was a good idea, only to wind up with a scalp like a grease pit.

Peter Paddington may very well grow up to be a fat, gay cross-dresser, which is all fine and well, but the point is that his adolescent experience is pretty universal. Pretty awful too– he’s bullied at school, he’s longing for friends, he’s embarrassed about his body in general, and puberty is hardly doing him any favours. Where the book gets its humour is in the gap between Peter’s reality and his perception of it– a space so rich and brilliant, allowing the reader ample room between the lines to consider this young boy’s situation from an adult point of view. That Peter does not entirely understand his situation is his saving grace, though of course the book does suggest he is more aware than he lets on, but is working to actively avoid enlightenment.

It is this edge then than allows us to take Peter Paddington a little more seriously than we did the similarly hilarious Adrian Mole. Peter is not a caricature, and neither are the people around him– particularly his loving parents who try to do their best, but are just as helpless to help him as he is. The world around him as realistically rendered– Sarnia, Ontario in 1984, with all the pop-cultural touchstones that ring so familiar, and junior high school clique taxonomy.

But Peter’s voice is Francis’s greatest triumph. Peter taking himself so utterly seriously, prioritizing his own point of view in the way that real people do, and it is obvious that Francis gives Peter much the same consideration. Never breaking away from Peter’s vision to insert a bit of irony, to provide a wider perspective, to ensure readers know he’s writing something more than a YA novel FYI, and in never breaking away, Francis thus has created a voice that’s so extraordinary. Peter Paddington is a train wreck waiting to happen, and of course we can see that because we’re years older than he is and we know how the world works, but he really hasn’t figured it out yet. This gap being from where the novel gets its humour, but also from where it earns its most unsentimental poignancy.

And so here’s the part where, for Canada Reads sake, I argue that Francis’s Fruit is superior to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. Which is the strange thing about this whole set-up, apples to oranges and all. I will definitely say that Hill’s book might be more important than Francis’s, that The Book of Negroes is more educational, that it will broaden our perspective in a way that Fruit only takes us inward. But Fruit is a better piece of literature, more successful in its realization. With a scope far more limited, admittedly, but I felt Hill’s too-broad scope was actually his greatest limitation. Whereas everything Fruit sets out to do, it succeeds at absolutely.

Canada Reads Rankings (so far):
1) Fruit by Brian Francis
2) The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

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