I came across “The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” when I was looking for new Canadian authors to read. Alan Bradley gets great press, so I bought this book even though I was concerned that I might be getting an extended one line joke in which an aristocratic, 1950’s stiff-upper-lip Brit attitude was made amusing by being exhibited by an eleven your old girl.
What I got was something much more complex and engaging than that. I got Flavia de Luce, a young girl with a remarkable mind and dauntless heart, who is determined to solve a murder her father has been arrested for committing.
The book is set in England in 1950. shortly after the end of the war. Eleven year old Flavia lives in a large and once grand Stately Home with her two older sisters who are close to each other but exclude her, her emotionally withdrawn father and no memory of Harriet, her adventurer mother who is missing, presumed dead.
The book is told entirely in the first person from Flavia’s point of view, so its success depends upon enjoying seeing through her eyes. Alan Bradley pulls this off perfectly- Flavia speaks and thinks in the over elaborate language of an intelligent, self-educated unsocialised child, intoxicated by the complexity of the world and unblinkingly confident in her ability to master it. Here is her description of her discovery, some years earlier, of the love of her life: Chemistry
The book’s title was An Elementary Study of Chemistry, and within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning “violet,” and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning “a stench.” These were the sorts of things I needed to know!”
Flavia is proud of her rational mind and of having the objective curiosity of a scientist but also gives full reign to her imagination. This is her description of stepping into the grounds at night.
“As I stepped outside, I saw that the silver light of dawn had transformed the garden into a magic glade, its shadows darkened by the thin band of day beyond the walls. Sparkling dew lay upon everything, and I should not have been at all surprised if a unicorn had stepped from behind a rosebush and tried to put its head in my lap.”
Flavia, recognises that her fascination with death and poisons might be considered pathological but she also knows that it is a true part of herself. When she comes across dying man in her garden and holds his head as he breathes his last, she is honest about her reaction:
“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.”
“The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie” is a splendid detective story. Its characters and plot put Agatha Christie to shame. It evokes upper-class England in the first half of the last century deftly and simply. It unfolds the plot at just the right pace. Yet, by far the biggest achievement of the book is the gentle disclosure of the mystery of Flavia de Luce herself.
Flavia lives in an emotional desert that could crush a lesser girl. She feels that she is not loved. Her solution is to decide that she must love herself. At one point, riding her mother’s bike, that Flavia restored and rechristened as Gladys, at great speed, she gives way to joy, thinking:
“I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did. “All hail Flavia! Flavia forever!” I shouted, as Gladys and I sped through the Mulford Gates, at top speed, into the avenue of chestnuts that lined the drive at Buckshaw.”
I didn’t want this book to end because I didn’t want to leave Flavia. Fortunately, there are another four books in the series. I will be visiting her again soon.