When trying to explain the relentlessly uplifting tone of his 2001 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2's Bono said, "Anger is simple. Any artist knows he can do it with a black brush. ... It's an easy thing to do: painting in black. Joy is something else." And though the artist formerly known as Paul Hewson has said his share of pompous things in the past, I think he's right this time. It's tremendously difficult to pen (or record or sketch or sculpt) something buoyant without it becoming saccharine -- unless you happen to be Alan Bradley. His debut novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, strikes a near-perfect balance between joy and melancholy with the inclusion of an eleven-year-old heroine who adores both her family and the chemistry of poisons.
To call Flavia de Luce a prodigy doesn't quite do her justice. Not only can this youngest member of the de Luce family read the periodic table as though it was her native tongue, she uses her mastery of arcane formulae to get revenge against her older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia. And there's plenty of vengeance to dish out. Not only do Daffy and Feely (as she dubs them) alternately torment and ignore her, they also delight in reminding her that she's too young to remember their late mother. Flavia's dour dad hardly helps, wrapped up as he is in his obsessive stamp collection. Flavia often wonders if anyone in her family really loves her. Then something snaps her out of her dismal mood: She hears a stranger arguing with her father in their manor's study and the next morning she finds him dying in the cucumber patch. Witnessing a man draw his last breath would terrify most eleven-year-olds, but Flavia finds it the most exciting event of her short life.
If Bradley excels at any part of the writers craft, it's in creating unique, memorable characters. That's not to say that the novel's plot or setting are sub-par; in fact, he keeps you briskly turning the pages of Flavia's 1950-era adventure in an English hamlet. But Flavia herself really steals the show. She's precocious and lonely and inquisitive and brash and angry and ... Well, you get the idea: She comes off like a real, well-rounded person, only one who happens to know by heart the formulation of any number of poisons and who likes to use the milder to spike Ophelia's lipstick after she locks her in a closet. Also, Flavia learns to enjoy solving murders, even when her investigation's last act leads her to ... No, I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that the book's penultimate moments feel about as menacing as anything in hardboiled, which serves as a nice bracer to the tender ending. Not to say that Pie is perfect. Three chapters in a row lose themselves in talky exposition, and Flavia's cutesy narrative patois makes reading more difficult than it ought to be in parts. Still, there's more sweet than sour in this Pie.
(Picture: CC 2011 by sciondriver; Hat Tip: Writing Excuses)