The Night Rainbow, by Claire King

Review published on March 8, 2013.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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[product sku=”9781408824672″]The Night Rainbow, Claire King’s debut novel, has already been highly praised by such firmly established novelists as Joanne Harris and Maggie O’Farrell. It has been promised that the book is ‘an unforgettable novel about innocence and experience, grief and compassion and the dangers of an overactive imagination’.

The Night Rainbow is told from the first person perspective of five-year-old Peony, called by the affectionate nickname of Pea. Pea lives on the edge of a small village in the South of France, along with her heavily pregnant English mother and four-year-old Margot. Their mother, Joanna, is overwhelmed by grief. Pea tells us in her honest voice how, when her mother came back from hospital the preceding year, ‘She had changed from fat to thin, but she didn’t bring back a baby like she promised. She left it at the hospital, along with her happiness’. Despite being pregnant again, Joanna has the added sadness of having to contend with the bottomless well of grief left after her French husband Amaury’s death: ‘One day in spring, he was driving his tractor on a hill and he fell off it and was squashed… Without Papa here there is never a very good time to be in the house, so every day we have to decide where to go’.

Pea’s voice is captured immediately, and many childish proclamations are woven throughout: ‘half of me is sunny and hot because I’m sitting in a ribbon of outside’, Pea tells us. When introducing herself and Margot, she says, ‘Margot is like me and she is not like me. I am five and a half, Margot is only four, but she’s tall for her age. We both like cuddles and insects and cuddling insects and we both have freckles and green eyes, like Maman… In the sunlight Maman’s eyes are kaleidoscopes’. The girls are endearing from the outset. Pea describes the way in which ‘Margot dreams about tiny people that live in the cupboards and have parties on Thursdays, and about jigsaws that make themselves’.

Such childish magic has been included that it is difficult not to love the very bones of the girls from the first chapter. Margot quickly assumes the role of mother on their daily rambles: ‘Pea, look at you, you haven’t even got a hat on’, and ‘Today I am the maman, she says, so you will do as you’re told’. The girls have taken it upon themselves to try and find Maman’s lost happiness. ‘There are more than a thousand things in the world,’ Margot reasons, ‘and one of them must make Maman happy’. The girls are self-sufficient and often fix their own meals. They even take it upon themselves, in one particularly sad passage, to wash their clothes as Maman has forgotten to. Their love for Maman, and for each other, is touching.

Whilst on a trip to a nearby meadow to get out of the oppressive house, the girls meet a middle-aged man named Claude, who is inseparable from his dog Merlin. They see him as ‘a strange kind of grownup’, who does as the girls tell him to. He tells them that he knew their Papa, and a relationship of shared memories is built up accordingly. Claude becomes a steady part of their lives, a constant in uncertain times. He has his own sadness to contend with, and tells the girls that he is ‘a bit broken’, but their friendship is all the more strong because of it.

King’s descriptions of the landscapes in The Night Rainbow are a definite strength and, like Pea’s narrative voice, she has captured them perfectly. Many of these observations contain distinctly childish aspects: ‘I try to think about the rain. It is like people clapping, as though the clouds have done something clever… or maybe the swallows have put shoes on and are dancing on our roof’.

Pea and Margot are two of the most realistic childish protagonists I have come across in fiction, and they are distinctly memorable in consequence. The differences in their personalities – Pea is the worrier and Margot the one who reassures, for example: ‘Even though I am biggest she is the bravest’, Pea tells us – have been balanced wonderfully. King has successfully married together the idylls of a childhood lives in the rural South of France with the realities of loss, grief and loneliness. A marvellous debut.

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