A deeply poignant, richly-coloured and remarkable début novel, The Night Rainbow is – somewhat surprisingly – the work of economics graduate Claire King, who spent the first twenty years of her adult life in the business world.
She now lives in the south of France – although a glance at the first fives pages or so of her first novel would make that obvious: the vibrant, sultry, sweet-smelling and rustic landscape of a southern French summer practically beams out of the pages from start to finish.
The deliciously simple food (olives, crusty bread, peaches, ratatouille) and the surrounding nature (blackberry bushes, yellow meadows and grazing donkeys) are so vivid that the book’s setting is more like a central character, and an utterly charming one at that.
Inhabiting this brilliantly realistic world are five-year-old Pea and her sister Margot, who is only four, but to whom Pea looks up as wiser and not afraid of anything. They live on a remote farm with their ‘Maman’, who is heavily pregnant.
It transpires this is her second pregnancy in as many years, but last time the baby was ‘left at the hospital, along with her happiness.’ Their Papa (Amaury) has been killed in an accident, and Maman is now unreachable in her grief, holed up in her room sweating in the heat while the last remaining part of her partner grows and kicks inside her.
Driven away by her new fierceness, the girls spend their days playing outside in the meadow or on Windy Hill. The challenge they set themselves every day is to make Maman happy again, by taking care of themselves and the house, and by trying to find her a new Papa.
Whilst playing in the meadow one day, they meet a man called Claude, who seems to love the outside as much as they do. They want him to be their new Papa, but their Maman isn’t the only reclusive one, and Claude has secrets too – secrets that make the rest of the villagers want him to keep away from Pea and Margot.
At first glance, the idea to use the first person narrative of a five year old appeared to be far too sickly for a full-length novel. Three hundred pages of a child’s simplistic language and descriptions, and amusing if tiresome misunderstandings of how the world works seemed too tough to endure.
How stupidly wrong I was. It’s enchanting, and all too easy to lose yourself within the pages for hours at a time. Although not exactly action-packed, King’s engaging narrative sweeps you up and carries you along, filling you brimful with warmth without ever becoming twee.
Some of her descriptions are mesmerising, in particular Pea’s sadness, anger and frustration being referred to as a ‘darkness’ that begins to fill her whenever their situation gets too tough to bear. Lesser characters such as Mami Lafont (their grandmother) and Josette give the girls’ precarious lifestyle a constant air of threat from unhelpful interference – a completely necessary element to the story if we aren’t to view Maman as an unsympathetic monster of a mother.
Some of the children’s thoughts do appear a little too wise to be believable at times, but then the book teaches us that sometimes grown-ups can get too clever to notice the important things.
Not too long or too short, the final thirty pages of the story engulfed me entirely and left me feeling the perfect balance of contentment and misery – The Night Rainbow is the sort of début novel that most writers fervently wish they had in them.
The Night Rainbow is published on 14th February in hardback by Bloomsbury and is available from Foyles, Amazon, or your local independent bookshop priced at £12.99. A ebook edition is also available, priced at £8.51.
Recommended for… Dreamers, mothers, lovers of the rich landscape of the south of France, and those in need of warming up.
Other recommended reading: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a similarly poignant look into the mind of children in a more harrowing Second World War setting. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros also tells of the remarkable courage of a little girl.