I’ve read a number of memorable books where the narrator is a very young child (Room by Emma Donoghue immediately springs to mind) but none quite as lovely as Claire King’s The Night Rainbow , narrated by five-year-old Pea.
Read the blurb for The Night Rainbow and you’d be correct in thinking it sounds like the world’s most depressing story – Pea and her younger sister Margot are grieving their father, who died in a tractor accident on the family farm. Their mother is pregnant, also grieving, and deeply depressed. Pea and Margot are left to their own devices for much of the time – they play in the nearby stream and meadow, prepare their own meals, and think of ways to make Maman happy again. And then they meet their neighbour, Claude, and their small world changes.
“There are more than a thousand things in the world and one of them must make Maman happy. But how do we know which one? Exactly! says Margot. This is our new challenge. We are going to use our cleverness to make Maman happy again. We will start by trying yellow flowers.”
It’s not a dramatic story, it’s a delicate one. It’s simply but exceptionally well told. King manages to capture the extremes of being a five-year-old – of shifting from complete self-centeredness to wondering about the whole world in the blink of an eye; from being brave to scared in an instant; from being sad to happy in the space of a minute.
It’s the very innocence of Pea’s voice and thoughts that makes the story unnerving. We see Claude through Pea’s eyes – a kind man who has a friendly dog, delicious treats for afternoon tea and builds tree-houses. Of course, as an adult reader, you think you understand Claude’s true motives, and the picture is terrifying. Equally, you see Pea’s unwavering loyalty and love for her mother and, as the reader, you know that Maman is in a place so dark that she may not want or be able to return from it.
“Margot and I are not the same, you can tell by our dreams. I am always dreaming about witches chasing me, or picnic-days at the beach before all the dying happened – those are the best ones. Margot dreams about tiny people that live in cupboards and have parties on Thursdays, and about jigsaws that make themselves.”
I read with a growing sense of unease, fearful for what was in store for Pea and Margot, and all the while, Pea’s optimistic and cheerful voice clashed with my worries and suspicions.
Any story that deals with very young children loosing a parent (and/or parents loosing a child) tends to break my heart into eleventy thousand billion pieces and The Night Rainbow was no exception. It’s about loss and grieving on many levels. I cried. Lots. And yet, through Pea’s eyes, King manages to tell a story that’s optimistic and charming. And Pea’s voice doesn’t falter once – her plain, innocent descriptions about her mother and events reveal more than Pea would ever comprehend at age five.
“As she went she’d whisper, I love you. Every night, even if I was awake I used to pretend to be asleep. Now I wish that I had kissed her back and said, I love you too. I don’t even remember the last time she kissed me, because I never knew I had to.”
5/5 I just loved Pea to bits.
Pea’s family farm is a peach orchard. Although it’s hard to improve on a fresh peach, this recipe for grilled peaches* and salad would meet Pea’s ‘goodness’ criteria –
“We need to have goodness and flavour, I say. And colour and texture, says Margot. And love, I say. When Maman was still singing she cooked all the time and she taught us the right ingredients for a recipe… We can make a salad, I say. You can eat goodness, says Margot, but you can’t eat naughtiness. I think about it, and she’s right. You don’t get naughty food. I haven’t used the milk because it’s too wet, and I haven’t used the jam because it doesn’t rhyme with any of the other flavours.”