I’ll get this out of the way first: reading The Night Rainbow had a profound effect on how I saw my own childhood and the different narratives of my own life. Sometimes you read a book and it does something to the chemical balance of your brain and you go, ‘Oh!’. Reading this book did that to me. It changed my life. Fiction can do this and it's remarkable.
Claire King has written a novel so delicately paced, so beautifully and often ‘innocently’ written that the style and content are often quite in contrast with each other. This in itself shows her skill as a writer and that writing about dark things can be done with a lightness of touch. It would be easy to mistake that lightness of touch with sweetness or sentimentality, but for me there just isn't any of that in this book at all. It is a book about coping, about how children recreate the world around them to make sense of it and to survive. This book deals with brutal things, and yet...
Pea, the narrator, is five and full of everything a child at that age might be: playing, games, food, fun, story telling, making up answers to adult questions she doesn't understand, trusting and blaming herself for things that go wrong due to adults and bad luck. She is funny, kind, sometimes greedy and always wanting to feel love and affection that her mother is unable to give. She longs for human touch, for the unconditional love we all want and need.
Her relationship with her sister Margot is one of mutual nurturing and teasing, kindness and competition. They egg each other on to be brave, to create mischief, to find the answer of how to make their mother happy again when she can barely get out of bed, let alone give them a hug or a kiss or the warmth they both crave. Many of the sisters' interactions are funny and I laughed several times. Their relationship is bitter sweet and necessary for their survival.
I love how King does all this without making the reader hate the mother. Whenever Pea describes her Maman's efforts, I leant forward in hope for all of the main characters. I know Pea's mother was not neglectful due to cruelty, and that added such pathos to the scenes where Pea thinks she is about to be shown love and some terrible accident, such as smashing a glass, makes her mother retreat and Pea feel deep guilt and shame.
Pea blames herself. She believes she and Margot have the power to make her mother happy; if she just finds the right thing, if she just makes herself perfect. This is heart-breaking and I cried several times at the injustice, inevitability and sadness of it.
The writing itself is full of beautiful imagery, delicious food and scenery, and, in fact, creates a sensory idyll that's impossible not to relish. I am one of those people whose best meals have been in books, and this does not disappoint. I would like to visit the farm, would like to go to the meadow. I would like to sit at the table and eat the salads and the pasta and the fruit, and share the bread. The descriptions are specific and often poignant. It's just excellent writing, that perfect combination of plot, style and thought that I long for in a book and won't stop raving about when I find it.
Without giving away plot, there are some terrific twists, and I love how King plays with the readers prejudices about adults and children and leads us down paths which seem predictable but in fact are anything but. The truth of this story is so much worse than what you start imagining. Pea is a very vulnerable child, and whilst the sweetness is there, her mind and body go to some terrifying places, from which, I wonder, how she will ever return from. Who is Pea as an adult and what is her life like?
There is an overall feeling that things will be okay, and towards the end of the novel, events do show that. It's hard to describe the journey Pea and Margot go through, or how brilliantly King shows the hurts and fears of the adults around them through Pea's own, unknowing eyes, but needless to say The Night Rainbow will be one I buy people as a gift for years to come and say, 'You've got to read this!'
It's so good, so deft, so articulate on human emotions, so deep with ideas about trust and loyalty and pain, about what we do when the world around us is too painful to accept or believe, that you'd think it would be hard going and difficult to stomach. It's not. This is a writer whose sentences gleam brightly, brilliant as Christmas; joyful as wrapped gifts and foil-covered sweets, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what she writes next.