Summer, day one: a book about pineapples

Posted on May 27, 2010

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I am currently in a state of limbo. Officially, I’m still a poor student; in reality, I’m practically one of those fully-grown adult things who has to go and find a job. As part of that, I’ve decided to put the self-marketing into overdrive, buy the domain http://www.stokel-walker.co.uk and begin a blog in an attempt to show my verbal dexterity (or propensity to diahorrea, depending on whether you’re a prospective employer or someone who hates people on the internet talking to the winds).

So to the book review (because you need to show you’re adaptable, and so as well as being a good copywriter, factual journalist, features writer and business-runner I’m throwing my hat into the reviewer ring). Having read umpteen novels over the past three years of an English degree, the last thing I want to do is face another fictional text. So I chose a biography, as you do. About pineapples.

This book has been in our house for about a year, and it intrigued me from the moment I saw it. Biographies are meant to be about sentient things: moreso than anything else, they’re culpable to being skewed by emotion and feeling. You’re viewing a life through the prism of a third party, who will – consciously or not – end up putting their emotions and feelings into the subject. So we’re viewing the life of the pineapple, and its stratospheric rise from being a fruit that native savages ate and nattered about to a fruit that posh people in silly outfits ate at British dinnertables and nattered about.

You still get the bias though. Indeed, the first fifty pages of the biography are seemingly an attempt by Beauman to do her very best to make you not want to read on. Sub-Mills and Boon writing (‘I weave my way up and down the aisles in search of…I am not sure what’, ‘Oh, how it has fallen from grace!’ and the hilariously self-referential ‘This is strikingly reverential language to use about what is, lest we forget, only a fruit’) piles on top of each other to make a sickly-sweet paean to what is a fairly ugly and watery fruit. To use an image that the Beauman of the first 50 pages herself might use, her initial writing style is like the brittle, spiky exterior of the fruit.

But then as with the humble pineapple itself, once you get past the initial rind you get sweet, tart flesh which nourishes and leaves you wanting more. The pineapple is traced as a status symbol (not-for-nothing was it given the title ‘King of fruits’ – just look at it’s plumage) across the ages, taking in the Spanish dominance of its colonies, past the Glorious Revolution (and the subsequent petty spat between Britain and the Netherlands’ horticulturists to see who could grow the best pineapples) through British imperialism and into the United States’ lukewarm reaction to the fruit (it reminds them too much of us, apparently, and all the bad things we did like enslaving people). There is ample contemporary evidence – although having just completed an English degree, Beauman can sometimes sound like a second-year undergraduate in her analysis of the pineapple’s place in literature – and luscious colour plates, all well referenced.

In sum (a phrase Beauman relies too heavily on in her academic-ese) this is a book which intrigues you when you pass it on the bookshelf for the sheer novelty of a biography about a fruit, then actively tries to drive you away with its overblown prose. If you see it through, however, you’re rewarded with a delightful and informative precis on how and why we all fell head over heels about a fruit which is, after all, 87% water.

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