Book Review – The Taste of Apple by James Laidler
The Taste of Apple is Australian writer James Laidler’s debut, a verse novel about the life and times of young Pedro Jones. It won the Best First Book category in Interactive Publications’ IP Picks Awards 2010 and was published by IP the same year. Firstly, you might be wondering what kind of beast a ‘verse novel’ is. I’d never read one myself, but I remember having a creative writing tutor once, Alan Wearne, who had written a number of them. Basically it’s a novel with characters, a narrative, visual description, and all the things you’d normally expect from a novel, except that it’s set out as a series of poems. The resultant work, in this case, is breezy, engaging and frequently heartmoving. I strongly recommend that you give The Taste of Apple a try.
Pedro Jones is a young man in nineties Melbourne trying to come to terms with his mixed Filipino and White Australian heritage. His unhappy family life is fractured forever, on Christmas Eve, when his father leaves the family to live in another part of Victoria. Pedro’s mother Imee, alone and impoverished, is left to raise Pedro with only her Catholic faith to guide her. They have to more to the seedy apartment block Eden Towers to survive. Pedro meets Juan “Johnnie” Lazzaro, a young East Timorese man whose family life and personal circumstances are even more dire than Pedro’s. The boys become best friends, busking together on the streets of Melbourne and drowning their sorrows in alcohol.
The Taste of Apple is a dark book in many ways, but it’s never depressing, due to the optimistic tone and uplifting spirit herein. There are a number of shocking twists along the way, which I’ll try not to spoil here, but suffice to say that this is definitely a novel, even if it is set in verse, not a book of poems in the ordinary sense. As the narrative progresses, Pedro becomes drawn into the East Timor liberation movement, as he discovers that Johnnie himself is a survivor of the Dili massacre. Here we meet a colorful and memorable cast of characters, some of the strongest in the book. Pedro also learns about the healing power of gardening as he attempts to put his past, and specifically his absent father, behind him.
I doubt I’ve enjoyed reading a book this year as much as I enjoyed reading The Taste of Apple. The pages practically turn themselves; I’d challenge anyone to start reading this and not finish it. You can buy it from online sellers such as Amazon or The Book Depository. There is also an enhanced edition which you can read more about on the author’s website. I look forward to James Laidler’s next book with interest.