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Why I knew I would love The Night Rainbow

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King

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.


NIghtRainbowPaperback


(Also available in paperback in August)

Substitute

When you died, grief hung around the house in your image.
It sat in the bedroom in a chair that wasn’t there, and waited in every darkness. It wanted to introduce itself to me, but it was so heavy with trauma, fear and the unknown that we were awkward together. I flicked on lights and told it it wasn’t there.

Over time, the images were less cruel and less frequent, but grief still begged to be noticed. It stopped me in the kitchen, and held me poised with one hand on the handle of a rumbling kettle as it boiled. It took advantage of the noises of running water, flushing toilets, spinning machines; keeping me suspended in another realm whenever sounds of the outside world were held off by white noise.

It followed me to the bathroom, to my moments of solitude, and crept into bed with me at night to wait for the insomnia that always came. It seeped into my computer and chose the saddest songs, wound its way into my throat and pushed at my chest.
Like a lover, it became jealous of my family, and played with my face – dragging down my jawline to make me ugly, capturing my gaze and distracting my eyes away from my children. It punched me in the chest, poked me in the eye, bruised me, made me cry. It took control of my voicebox and made me talk about you, held my hands and made me write about you. It was a bully and yet it wanted to be my friend.

I didn’t send grief away. “I notice you,” I said. “I don’t hate you.”
I treated it with respect. I gave it time, I gave it words; I gave it music and let it enter me. We became companions, grief and I.

Now grief is quieter. It is never happy but it is settled here. It has a place and it behaves better because it is satisfied we know each other now. It believes me when I say I will take it everywhere with me and keep it safe. Sometimes it sits above me and tickles my head or closes my eyes. It points things out or sends me a memory. It doesn’t want me to be always afraid or always in pain – I know now – it came to replace you. And that is why it is so insecure: it is such a poor substitute, but substitute it is.



Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 72. It is also Fathers’ Day.
Grief and I had some time alone in the garage today and now we are sharing a glass of wine while grief writes this.

A Farewell to Plates

(not to be confused with pilates – I never did that)
platespinning
When we’re walking the dog along the beach, I often pick up a stone or a pebble and turn it over, hidden, in my left hand. I prefer an imperfect, partially-worn pebble, still with edges, crevices and knobbles. I absent-mindedly assess its contours with my fingertips and become accustomed with how it feels and what to expect with each turn. There’s comfort in the familiarity of the rhythm, and it’s a nice simple thing to do while my conscious brain thinks it’s really engaged in walking, taking in the view, and perhaps discussing the family or the shop or something trivial with my husband. My other hand is usually in charge of carrying my camera, and that’s where all the responsibility lies.
But today I saw two pebbles of a similar size that both looked like they would be nice to hold. I picked them up and held them together, tumbling them over each other. It didn’t seem as simple or as pleasant as turning only one. The pebbles bumped together and destroyed each other’s rhythm, and they grated as grains of sand scratched as they turned. It wasn’t long before I could tell them apart though and had noticed one was sharper than the other. I became more aware of what I was doing and started to think about it. What if there were three pebbles in my hand?
I picked up another one and held the three together. As I moved them around, the tumbling became jumbled and random. I had less control. But I could soon make out three different stones by feel: one was the smoothest, one was the sharpest and one was neither the smoothest nor the sharpest – it was just there. I now had to think about why it was individual and how to identify it. It was a little smaller, I eventually decided.
But what about four or five stones in the hand – all of a similar size, all supposedly taking up as much room in my hand and all hopefully getting a fair number of tumbles?

Well I tried it. And it certainly wasn’t comforting or simple. It wasn’t rhythmical or easy to keep tabs on each stone and the enjoyment of predicting the feel or a surface on each turn and being rewarded by being right had completely gone.

There was just too much going on

Each pebble, on its own, one at a time: fine. But in the time it takes to walk across the beach I don’t have time to play some 5-pebble swapping trick. Besides, I have too much else to think of, and worrying about whether each pebble has had a juggle in my hand is quite frankly bordering on the obsessive. So… just how many pebbles is healthy?

Okay. I’ll be honest now: the pebbles are just a catalyst. I’ve also been thinking about pies and plates his week.
“How many pies is it healthy for me to have my fingers in?” I’ve been asking myself.
And:

“Is it sensible to have several plates spinning if I can’t keep up with them all, am not enjoying the chaos, and which plates would be missed if I just concentrated on one or two?”

Feeling a bit chaotic and plate-spinny coincided with a recent period of low-confidence and bad health – mentally and physically. I’m sure they’re all connected in some way but not necessarily completely related to one another. It’s like Velcro balls: all separate but cause havoc when they’re all stuck together

On Tuesday I was on the brink of writing a farewell blog post. My paid-for domain name expires on 1st July and I’m not planning to pay to renew it. I thought I could write a swift goodbye and leave it there for 3 weeks until it disappears. Blogging takes up time. It’s occasionally caused me arguments which have led to bad feelings and those bad feelings have never left me. Because my blog was initially set up as a creative and communicative writing outlet, I felt as if I was failing on the communication side of things. It’s one thing to have your comments challenged in casual conversation, it’s another to have them challenged when you’ve thought about them long and hard and spent time writing them. It begins to feel like unpaid political journalism. I’m not in that area because I’m not mentally up to it. I would focus on the negative and the conflict and allow it to ruin everything. It’s an unavoidable part of low self-esteem. Besides, I may write mildly subversive thoughts occasionally but I’m never offensive or prejudiced. I would say I simply bounce thoughts around in a benign way. In my fiction and creative writing, I particularly don’t like receiving creative feedback when I haven’t asked for it. If my writing doesn’t work for someone, I’d rather they quietly ducked out rather than telling me I’ve done something wrong (when their “wrong” can equal a different taste rather than any kind of accuracy or breaking of rules). I found myself telling my sister on the phone recently I wanted to pour stuff out but not deal with the consequences. If I’m going to have to read scathing literary reviews about my work on a weekly basis, I’d like to be a. published, b. paid for it and c. for the person to have jolly good reason for their comments and they way they are delivered. Creativity (for me) can’t be constantly interrupted by criticism. No one sits outside my window when I play the flute, yelling, “I don’t think Vivaldi meant for it to be played that slow!” And I rarely get people telling me on blipfoto that my photos could be better – which is amazing because they could always be better! I’m doing it again: focussing on the negative!

And then there’s the peace, the guilt and the time involved in writing.

Writing does great things for me but it doesn’t make me feel like a good person. I feel inconvenient. I want solitude while my thoughts and words arrange themselves, and any interruption destroys everything. EVERY THING, I TELL YOU!! The trouble is the interruptions are usually unavoidable and my responsibility. I can escape the rage and frustration of interruption and the guilt of being inconvenient if I don’t write, right?

I quietly made up my mind to stop writing and slowly began to let it slip out.
Then three things happened in amazingly quick succession just as I was planning my final blog post that stopped me:
1. Someone whose opinion I value very highly said something complimentary about my blog posts
2. Someone else who follows me on Twitter didn’t know I blogged asked to see my blog and said that after reading my tweets – they would be interested in reading longer versions of my tweets
3. My mother came over for a visit and I didn’t get a chance to go near the computer that afternoon.

The farewell blog post never happened.

I realised the crisis in confidence had been a bigger part of the decision to stop writing than I had been admitting to myself. I don’t actually want to stop writing. And I don’t want to say I’m not a writer. I just want life to be easier. Easier on my terms. I want to sleep better, I want to have more energy, I want to stop having days of nothing but brain fog, I want to be able to do everything I want to do and everything other people want me to do. I want to be brilliant, amazing and the world’s best multi-tasker. But most of all I want to stop being disappointed with myself and I thought I would be better company and more efficient if I stopped writing.
But I haven’t been.
And I haven’t really stopped. I’ve been writing in my head. I do it regularly. I can’t stop. And I can’t make myself be more efficient or organise my time better. I just can’t. I’ll write a list and then feel ill all day, or I’ll plan to make bread and then end up planting potatoes. I cannot put aside a time to write, a time to play the flute, a time for walk, a time to take photos. I simply can’t.

I’ve tried again and again and again and I fail over and over and I hate myself for failing.

So I’ve looked at my plates, my pies and my pebbles. I’ve stopped spinning the plates, I’ve taken out my fingers and licked off the gravy (yum, pies…), and I’ve put the pebbles on the desk (<- that one's literal). There are too many needless plates and I’m getting rid of them. There are nice plates but I don’t need them so they will have to go. There are other plates I have no idea why I’m still trying to keep up. Social conditioning I guess.

Well. No more spinning. I don’t need to be something. I don’t need to prove anything. I need to survive. When I’m anxious, when there’s a lot going on, when ill health or exhaustion strikes I won’t write and I know I can’t write. I won’t be committing to anything at all any time soon, and I won’t be thinking of it as something I need to fit in somewhere like a task that grates against everything else going on. I’m just going to take each day as it comes, and try to stop taking any notice of people who like to provide endless lists of how bloody marvellous they’ve been, or people who are totally conventional and have no idea how it feels to be me. This is how I have to live because this is who I am.

What else can I do?

Besides: stuff it all. Who said there are any rules about anything, anyway?

So. Erm. Yeah. What’s the conclusion?

I’ve simplified my blog and it stays. For now. But I’m not paying to keep a paid-for domain, so it’ll just be any old WordPress blog soon. And I’ve removed the “About” page because I can’t keep up with who I am/was/might think I am sometimes. It keeps changing anyway.

Whatever.

Box of plates anyone?

(There really are pebbles from the beach in front of me)



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