Thursday 7 November 2013

Review: "The Night Rainbow" by Claire King

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
(image from Claire's website)

There's a cover quote from Joanne Harris on the front of the edition I read - "Quirky, elegant and sweet" - and if you wanted a quick summary of my feelings about this book, those three adjectives would do a pretty comprehensive job. Although I think it's fair to say this isn't a novel that's aimed squarely at blokes in their mid-thirties (the purple and pastel-pink cover isn't going to win you any Man Points, after all), I really enjoyed this beguiling tale of childhood and imagination.

The Night Rainbow is a relatively compact novel, both in terms of its physical size (260-ish pages in my version) and its scope - it covers a single summer, a few acres of land, and not many more than half a dozen significant characters. This is possibly a reflection of Claire King's successful track record with short stories, and the focus this brings is, by my reckoning, A Good Thing. Sometimes it's great to read sprawling epics that span continents and decades of history, sometimes it's better to go with something that knows where it is and is confident enough to stay there.

The story is that of Pea, short for Peony, a five-year-old girl who is left to more or less fend for herself after her heavily-pregnant mother takes to her bed. Pea's father has been killed in an accident and this, added to an earlier miscarriage and her apparent ostracism from the village in which they live, means Pea's mother feels unable to cope with the impending birth. Pea's only companion is her four-but-tall-for-her-age (and surprisingly worldly) younger sister, Margot. Together they construct elaborate games and take care of themselves as best they can while trying to make sense of the confusing rules and contradictions of the adult world.

Pea tells the story in her own words, and I think Claire's done a great job of creating a credible child narrator. There are a couple of linguistic quirks I wasn't sure about - such as the lack of speech marks and the way nobody seems to use contractions when they talk - but ultimately it works well and draws you into Pea's world. She's an appealing central character, and I found myself willing her on in her attempts to break through the darkness surrounding her mother.

The Night Rainbow is a relatively slow, gentle read. Its pace matches the hot, languid summer during which it is set, and the plot is not overburdened by many distractions. There are a couple of mysteries that add a little suspense; the main one concerns Claude, a neighbour who befriends the girls. This element of the story is where having the child narrator is most effective - in Pea's naive eyes Claude is a kindly guardian and possibly even a replacement for her dead father; while from an adult's viewpoint he is a lonely middle-aged man taking what could easily be an unhealthy interest in Pea.

There is a twist in the tale, although this comes as a slow reveal rather than a jolting "ta-da!" But, really, this isn't a novel that sets out to whip the rug from under your feet or keep you on tenterhooks. It's the book equivalent of a lazy summer afternoon in a hammock, or - as the weather in this part of the world has taken a decidedly wintery turn - a long soak in a hot bath. It's story to immerse yourself in, as you think back to those childhood days when life was both incredibly straightforward and unfathomably complicated.