My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos and Alison Entrekin (translator)
|My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos and Alison Entrekin (translator)
|Category: Confident Readers
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: A singular read from late 1960s Brazil, evoking the childhood of the then middle-aged author. It's apparently much adored, but I found it to be an awkwardly balanced curio.
|Date: January 2018
|Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books
It's just that sometimes, Zeze, you're too naughty. And that's almost the entire truth about our narrator, Zeze – he's a young tyke, and everyone in his large, half-Indian family – heck, everyone who recognises his blonde and pale looks in the neighbourhood – knows he's skilled at being up to no good, that perhaps he was born with a little of the devil in him where Jesus should reside. Instantly adept at being able to read, even when he's only five, the precocious brat is forced to face something that might be the changing of him, once and for all – school. This time of change is also featuring a move of home, as the family cannot afford the rent arrears on their current place, although having downsized the garden comes to feature the titular tree, which almost works as a confessional cum best friend. Whether either the new home or the school will get to change Zeze, or neither, is the plot of this vintage Brazilian junior read.
It's my place to comment on the book, and not other reviews, but I have to make an exception this time and say I was very surprised at those verdicts that drew me here – copious people saying they had read this decades ago and never forgotten it, that it was their prima inter pares Desert Island Discs novel, that it's the one book they wished to thrust on everyone else. (They're getting the chance courtesy of a brand-new-for-2018 retranslation.) I have to say that if I had a magically adept readerer of a five year old, I wouldn't choose this to be among his first novels.
But that's not to say it's poor, by any long chalk. It's full of Brazilian flavour, for one, with the children either raggedy upstarts competing at marbles, or swapping glimpses of a better world in the shape of trading cards featuring Hollywood stars of the time, and it's no surprise at all to be told it's autobiographical. But it might be said the flavour remains too piquant across the pond – there was perhaps too much of a spice here that made it hard to fit in, and less that would be right for the palette of a young British audience. Bats as pets, and trees as best friends? For another thing, I never felt there was enough of Zeze being naughty – and no, I would have found him insufferable if all he was was a slappable little oik. This is a book that is very keen to mention the Jesus/devil duo, and coming from the land of Christ the Redeemer (itself built just while the author stopped being only a glimmer in his parents' eyes) the religious aspect is bound to be rich, but there wasn't exactly enough of him sinning to make me think the change in him was narratively strong enough.
It's also quite episodic – only times does Zeze have to crack out the shoeshine box and go working (although he does have other jobs), the teacher that loves him and can see no wrong, and his favourite uncle, are often absent, and when other characters themselves get treated with fully Damascene twists you feel your grip on things further wrenched. But all that also proves that this book is certainly a rich one – there is a lot to contain in these pages (although anyone put off by the small font size should rest assured, as this flies by). And that's perhaps another small negative – the book features poverty, the colour prejudice within Brazilian society, and a lot more. The author's personal attachment to Zeze and his own experiences has resulted in something that is too serious, and with a reader such as me with fond memories of Tyke Tyler and other reprobates, I was left without the ultimate way to like Zeze I should have had, and ultimately I did not get to enjoy his story as much as I'd thought (especially with very yucky bits that made me squirm towards the end – this certainly comes from a more innocent age).
It still could well be an intriguing read for the more mature young readerer, however, if they are of an age to cope with seeing much physical punishment and reading notions of suicide. I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Trash by Andy Mulligan may well be based on Brazil, even if it's not officially set in any known country, and is bound to be many Desert Island Discs book choices in years to come.
You can read more book reviews or buy My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos and Alison Entrekin (translator) at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos and Alison Entrekin (translator) at Amazon.com.
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