A Review Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit

May 5, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Jehanne Dubrow

A is for appetite. I come to The Book of Difficult Fruit, because I am writing a manuscript about our sense of taste. I suppose you could say I’m hungry for any text about devouring.

B is for body. Kate Lebo begins with it. The fruits she examines are sometimes food, but just as often medicine, cordials, and balms that might heal the ill parts of ourselves.

C is for cancer: perhaps the book’s most painful fruit of all.

D is for difficult. Lebo cautions us that, for her, “fruit is not the smooth-skinned, bright-hued, waxed and edible ovary of the grocery store.” Instead, she understands fruit as a thing that invades or poisons or rots. Her book reflects this difficulty, resisting the linear and asking us to reach from one prickly bite to the next.

E is for exposition. There are occasional tastes of it.

F is for fragmentation, because the book is an abecedarian providing the kinds of surprises we expect from the form. See: Miłosz’s ABC’s. See: Companion to an Untold Story. See: Letter to a Future Lover.

G is for gorgeous, as when the narrator discovers a lump in her breast, saying it is “the size of a blueberry.” Allowed to grow, it might become “a plum, then a grapefruit, then a melon,” delicious in its terror.

H is for hybridity. If Lebo’s writing were a fruit, it would be a plumcot or a tangelo, a hybrid of sour and sweet.

I is for inquiry. “Why bother with inedible fruit?” the narrator asks. It offers “delight,” she tells herself and then wants to know why—why find pleasure in something that cannot be consumed?

J is for Jehanne. Yes, here I am again, highlighting passages I plan to quote in my own essays.

K is for Kate. In the book’s quick movement from fruit to fruit, we develop a feeling that we know the Kate presented on the page, her voice intimate as dinner with a close friend.

L is for lyrical. Writing about the famously malodorous durian, Lebo describes the danger of its spiked rind. “Falling fruit can kill,” she explains. “One must not loiter under the durian tree.”

M is for meditative. This is a book that loiters beneath thorny ideas about the body, how we hurt or heal. In a chapter about juniper berries, Lebo circles from gin to abortion to neti pots to recipe for bitters.

N is for nonlinear, as in the book moves straight through the alphabet but not through the story.

O is for origins. By researching the beginnings of difficult fruit—the Osage orange, for example—Lebo uncovers the sources of the self. The narrator too is difficult and spined.

P is for pain, which is the fruitful antonym of pleasure.

Q is for quiet. Between each letter of the alphabet, there’s a small silence. Lebo respects the quiet of the inter-alphabetical, as we move from Q to R.

R is for recipes. Every chapter ends with one. We learn how to prepare gooseberry cheese, red wine vinegar, quince jelly.

S is for satiation. When I finish The Book of Difficult Fruit, I feel full, as if I have eaten a meal that challenged me, some of its courses not easily swallowed.

T is for thorns. See the book’s epigraph: “If sweetness makes fruits desirable, there must also be sharpness: no rose without a thorn. The palate rejects blandness even when attracted by sweetness.”

U is for ugly—certainly, one antidote to the bland is the unattractive.

V is for verse. Poets are everywhere in The Book of Difficult Fruit, perhaps because poetry is so well suited to revealing the sweet interior beneath the bitter peel.

W is for well. In a chapter about her autoimmune disease, Lebo writes:

My mother disagrees. For thirty-five years, she’s pursued the cure for pain. Why would she be satisfied with stasis?

“I will figure this out,” she says. For me. For herself.

“I am closer than ever,” she says.

I want to believe her. I want us to be well.

X is for the toxicity of xylitol, a chemical compound found in certain fruits.

Y is for you. Lebo wants you close when she’s making jam or syrup. She warns you, as though you stand beside her in the orchard: “Be advised that yuzu trees have thorns. While picking fruit, beware.”

Z is for zucchini, the final chapter in the book.

Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild Kingdom (LSU Press, 2021) and a book-length essay, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her nonfiction has appeared in Brevity as well as in New England Review, Colorado Review, The Common, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

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