In 2010, I bought a copy of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, and found a story by Claire King, called Wine at Breakfast, which was written in a way that seemed to fit me. It had a rhythm that felt familiar and matched the way my own word rhythms work. This made it natural for me to read it as if it belonged in my head. And it contained all the things that I find powerful and captivating: family, love, imperfection, struggle – the wow!ness, if you like, of real life.
So I decided to stalk this writer and was delighted to find her on Twitter. I was also delighted to discover she was every bit as human and warm as her writing suggested.
At this time I was going through a type of writing immersion: I was taking a writing course with the Open University, writing daily, following hundreds of writers on Twitter, joining groups and subscribing to writing magazines. I found another winning short story by Claire, in Writers’ Forum Magazine, about the exhaustion of being a new mother. Again it had all the things that suited me and was delivered in Claire’s natural musical phrasing so that the words flow through and over you instead of bumping and making you take breath in the wrong places. When someone writes that well, there’s no need for bells and whistles – the way the pull of human struggle is written and draws out your emotions is enough of a ride.
What I like best about Claire, though, is not that she is good writer. It’s that she doesn’t talk about her writing all the time – she talks about life, she makes jokes, she puts her family in the number one position before everything else in her life. She doesn’t judge others. She likes silliness, food, drink, the open air, and life – real life – in general, and she sends herself up. You get the feeling talking to her that she knows how short and sweet life is and that in order to cope with the briefness we need to appreciate the sweetness. There is also an overwhelming sense of empathy and understanding that emanates from things Claire says. She comes across as someone who knows what pain looks like and has possibly seen things that give her a special perspective on life and a deep understanding of people. She shares. And shares this well in her writing.
So when (in 2011?) I heard Claire’s first novel was to be published, I was very excited. I was in the middle of writing an important assignment but stopped and had a drink for her (“in the middle” in a “checking out what was happening on Twitter” kind of way!).
I finally got a copy of The Night Rainbow in my hands when it was published in February this year, and found myself in the most wonderful position of knowing without a doubt that I would love it. Things at home had been tough for one reason or another and I was shattered and low, so I put the book on the shelf next to the bed and waited. I knew there would come a time when I would be ready.
And finally, four months later – eight days ago, I was ready. Not liking spoilers of any kind, I had carefully avoided reviews about the book, and I let the whole experience be a complete surprise.
While you could apply terms such as “unputdownable”, and “page turner” to this book, I was strong and managed to stop turning pages and put it down each night and make it last a week. I’m glad I didn’t take a one-day trip to be in France with a little girl called Pea and her world. I’m pleased I got to visit for a week, and get a feel for the place.
Just as Claire doesn’t tell the reader how to think, I don’t want to tell you what to think of the book. And there are a couple of surprises that unravel along the way – one of which I feel must unravel at the reader’s pace so they have their own unique experience whilst reading. What I can say though, is that the beautifully rhythmic writing is there, the human condition is there – everywhere! My senses came alive, my heart was broken and patched up, and I really felt I’d stepped outside myself and been Pea in France for a while.
There is one strong thread throughout the book and that is the sense that the boundaries between what is real and what is not real are often blurred. The absence of speech marks makes this especially clear. While we are watching 5-year-old Pea struggle so enormously to make sense of the world – and perhaps we are happy sometimes that she doesn’t – we can also be allowed to think that we as adults – and indeed the adults in the book – are just as guilty of seeing things through only one pair of eyes, through one perspective as Pea does, and how that can never and will never give the whole truth.
Of course I will take my own individual reading of this book and make it fit my own concerns, but what I gained from the novel was a sense that it is all too easy to judge and/or be afraid of others but we are all the sum of life’s struggles and need to be loved. There was not one character that was truly awful or wholly bad, but there were often behaviours that concerned or had an adverse effect on others. This is how human beings are. Revolving the story around Pea’s perspective gives an insight into how complicated we can look from the outside and how actions or words can be misinterpreted, but overall, most of us are pretty decent people. As time goes by in the story we can see how the adults struggle just as much Pea to make sense of the signs and misread each other.
On a personal level, I recognised the exhaustion of pregnancy, and the difficulty I found in being what everyone needed me to be in difficult times. I recognised also the tremendous power grief has over a person. I’ve seen what it looks like and how difficult it can be to claw your way back to normality. As a very young child I watched my mother cope with debilitating grief and Claire has expressed this really effectively in the novel.
Despite the horribleness that everyone seems to have endured at some point, there is a life-line of sweetness brought to the reader through the delights of the natural world and the seasons running through everything. The descriptions of food are totally delicious! Life stops and starts and bumps; it hurts, it shocks, it confuses. But life goes on and it’s not all bad, especially when there are biscuits.
I’m not really a fan of star-rating for books but, just in case Pea is reading, I would like to give this novel eleventy hundred.
And do I recommend it? You betcha!
The Night Rainbow.
(Also available in paperback in August)