Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Under the sweltering heat of the summer sun, five-year-old Pea – and her vivid imagination – run wild in the meadows behind her home on the edge of a small village in Southern France.
Pea’s father died in an accident, and now she only has her little sister, Margot, for company. Their mother is too sad to take care of them; she left her happiness in the hospital last year, along with the first baby.
Overwhelmed by grief, isolated from the other villagers, and pregnant again, Maman has withdrawn to a place where Pea cannot reach her, no matter how hard she tries.
When Pea meets Claude, a neighbour who seems to love the meadow as she does, she wonders if he could be their new papa. But the villagers view their friendship with suspicion. What secret is Claude keeping in his strange, empty house?
When I closed The Night Rainbow with a tear in my eye, I instantly gave it four stars. It was an emotional read and a very sweet story and I was really taken with it. Now that I sit down to write a review of it, though, I’m finding it very difficult to articulate why. I don’t have any real criticisms of the book but I also only have a few things that I can tell you that I loved about it. One of those books.
Let’s start at the beginning. The story is relatively simple and the book relatively short. Pea and Margot live in France with their heavily pregnant Maman and they are all living in the shadow of a dead father and a lost child. In some ways, it’s as relentlessly sad as you might expect but in others, it’s quietly hopeful. Pea is too young to fully appreciate death and so even while she understands loss and the fact that her beloved Pa is gone, she is as concerned with making sure that her nature collection of feathers and dead insects and such like are safe. It’s obvious to adult readers that both Pea and Margot don’t have enough structure or support in their lives and my heart hurt as they dedicated their days to making Maman happy. Small tasks like doing some washing and hanging it out, just to try to get attention and to make their mother’s life a little brighter. It’s the balance between their natural optimism and their sadness that she can’t be there for them that hurt my heart…
The word seems to come out of me all on its own. I think it’s strange my mouth would do that. The rest of my head knows she’s never there.”
As always with well written books featuring child narrators, what is almost more tragic than Pea and Margot running wild is watching their Maman fighting to keep her family together. I always think that the sign of a child narrator being really done well is that you get a sense of what the adults are going through without it being clumsy or too obvious. With The Night Rainbow, it isn’t just Pea and Margot’s Maman that readers get to know but Claude and Claude is really where King has done something that is brilliant on so many different levels. Claude is clearly in pain (both physical and emotional) and hints at the cause of that pain in the stories that he tells the young narrators. He is kind-hearted and paternal and Pea adores him and it is still obvious somehow that local residents are sceptical (to put it politely) about his relationship with his young neighbours.
When I participated in a Top Ten Tuesday earlier in the year
, I wrote about how I wanted to read more books set in France and this was a perfect way to follow through on that. The sun, the markets and delicious food and the endless, beautiful fields. Oppressive for the characters, true, but wonderful to read about. King’s writing is spot on and the scene where Margot is telling Pea about night rainbows is particularly beautiful.
There’s more to this book than meets the eye but I don’t really want to even mention vaguely how. I toyed with the idea of not mentioning the fact at all but in the end I couldn’t resist giving you one more reason to pick this up. It isn’t an action-packed book but it’s a very evocative one that if nothing else will conjure up the torrid heat of a French summer and leave you feeling a little bit more with every chapter.
Overall: The Night Rainbow is lovely. It somehow manages to be about the resilience of children and their vulnerability all at the same time because while Pea and Margot are surviving, they’re fragile and craving affection. And you’ll get all of that and a craving for some sunshine from a mere 272 pages. A winner, definitely.
Date finished: 8 February 2014
Source: Borrowed from my library
Genre: Literary fiction
Pictured edition published: by Bloomsbury in August 2013