Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie—Alan Bradley 2009–IP
There’s never been a protagonist quite like 11 year old Flavia DeLuce. Right off the bat you are thrown into her chaotic world where she lives with her two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and her widowed father in a decaying manse called Buckshaw. She and her older sisters play games that border on sadistic, and one of such games hits you as you begin the first chapter. Flavia is not your usual pre-teen, not even in 1950, when the story takes place. She loves chemistry, poisons, and listening on elders conversations. Her mother is said to have inexplicably fallen off a cliff leaving her father in a perpetual state of melancholy with only a few passions to consume his time, one being phil which is at the core of this hilarious, witty, clever, outrageous, throughly thrilling first novel by the now award winning Alan Bradley. It is told in the first person, by Flavia, and therefore from her unique point of view. Flavia is a bit of a loner, what with her father’s preoccupation with stamps and sadness, her sisters’ obsession with books and looks, respectively, her one ally in arms–her colonel father’s former underling, now known as the gardner. Flavia has named her bike, Gladys, and this mode of transport certainly keeps her under the radar, she can sleuth with nary an individual knowing.
The puzzles begin with a dead black bird on Buckshaw’s doorstep, with a stamp stuck to its beak. A little later a red headed stranger appears seeking Colonel de Luce, and ends up in a cabbage patch bonked over the head, dying, as Flavia hears his last wheeze.
” “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
And with that sentence, you have Flavia in a nutshell. And the ambiance of Sweetness and the books that follow in this series. As outrageous as the synopsis sounds, reading the text you feel no stretch of reality–the English village of Bishop Lacey, the dilapidated folly on a deserted teeny island in their lake, the ancient laboratory once used by her dead uncle, all the little scenes and settings are quirky as can be, and yet not so outrageous it affects the reader’s ability to believe every bit of action that occurs. A triumphant breath of fresh murder mystery welcomed by all ages–tweens, teens, and adults can sleuth alongside Flavia with tremendous pleasure.
Mr. Bradley began writing in earnest at age 70, after having published his memoirs. At around the third chapter of what was until then an entirely different book, in popped Flavia. She literally took over the narrative, claims Bradley, without his having thought about a young precocious girl at all. She took over and told quite a different tale, one that won Bradley the Debut Dagger Award, the Barry Award, the Dilys Award, the Arthur Ellis Award, the Macavity Award and the Spotted Owl Award. Mr. Bradley decided to set his stories in the 1950s because it was a time of innocence, and 11 years of age is that point where anything is possible, anything can be accomplished in a kid’s mind. He also likes to portray situations and things that existed during that time, but have since become extinct–and he includes collecting stamps as one of the long lost activities.
When I read that Bradley had never set foot on the British Isles before penning this novel, I was flabbergasted. Isn’t that against the rules? The sacred “write what you know” golden one? Mr. Bradley explained that his mother was English and he grew up in what he considered an English household, and therefore is British by association. I can understand this feeling, I too sometimes think I am British, and I’ve not a direct descendent to point to as the reason–just the far away genealogy that has my father’s family leave a town called Priddy, for the new world.
I’ve subsequently avidly read two more in the series, and although nothing can reproduce that first surprise and joy at finding such a refreshing voice, they are every bit as fun and ingenious as this first novel and I have no doubt however more he decides to write with Flavia and company will be well worth reading.
For a fun time go to Flavia’s personal webpage! : http://www.flaviadeluce.com/