It’s not often that you find a truly nervy novel, but Pedal is just that — so full of guts and so tightly strung that you somehow can’t look at directly or for very long, that it seems to vibrate on the shelf, that it seems to threaten the other books when you try to put it away.
This book made me uncomfortable — as I imagine it makes most readers uncomfortable — for the exact same reason Lolita makes readers uncomfortable: Rooney burrows deep into the heart of the taboo behind pedophilia and has the guts and the nerve to find redeeming qualities in those who fall in love with children.
Our narrator and heroine Julia is stuck in the middle of a master’s thesis, which is a controversial research project arguing that pedophilic relationships aren’t necessarily traumatic for the child. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her supervisor has serious doubts about the project — and its connection to Julia’s own childhood experiences with pedophilia. One thing leads to another, and Julia abandons rainy Vancouver to bike across Canada — searching for inspiration and her deadbeat, pedophile father.
Part of this novel’s dark and irresistible beauty comes from its blatant dramatic irony; it’s blatantly obvious that Julia needs some kind of paternal closure to move forward, both in life and in her thesis, and yet she so fervently and loudly denies it that the reader begins to doubt it, too. This tense juxtaposition winds the novel tighter and tighter, until it seems as though something has to give. But will it be Julia or the reader’s own certainty that gives way first?
The novel houses a second gorgeous juxtaposition, created by contrasting the beauty of Julia’s cross-country quest with the grim focus behind it. The beauty of Canada’s natural world is with her every step of the way — but so are the dark secrets of her childhood, and the unsettling idea that pedophilia should be socially acceptable. This is the classic coming-of-age Canadian road trip like you’ve never seen it before — and will never see again.
Given the subject matter, this is the sort of novel you’ll find yourself embarrassed to read in public — but defiant, too. In the great tradition of Engel’s Bear, Rooney pushes and prods the taboos we hold dearly. Do these taboos deserve to be overturned? Probably not. But it is surprisingly satisfying to see them squirm for a while, and feel that same discomfort somewhere deep behind your ribcage. As Rooney proves, discomfort has a lot to teach us — and no problem can be solved by refusing to stare it in the face.