Today, author of The Night Rainbow, Claire King, joins me on Dog Ear Discs to talk about the rich environments of her debut novel. I personally found the countryside of the novel felt like an additional character in its moods and changes. I asked Claire to talk more about the surroundings of the book…
I love to be transported to a different country, or a different era, or even to somewhere that I know, but seen through fresh eyes. I love to be surprised by sensory descriptions that put me into the environment with the characters.
When I wrote The Night Rainbow I wanted to draw the environment on two distinct levels: a detailed, child’s-eye view, and a broader, enveloping macro level.
Do you remember the house you grew up in? The little details about it?
I remember an orange colander, kept in a high cupboard that I had to climb onto a work surface to reach. I remember the smell of my gran’s pantry and the coal dust on my grandads eyelashes. Children seem to retain unpredictable snapshot memories of what might seem mundane things in a very vivid way. I think this happens to us when we live abroad too, perhaps because our brains are wired to notice things that are different. I wanted to capture the small details of setting in The Night Rainbow this way.
The Night Rainbow is set in a fictional farmhouse, on a fictional hill near a fictional market village in southern France. I made it all up. But of course I drew on places that I knew and that inspired me. I wanted a setting that could seem beautiful and exotic on the surface, but with concealed threats, from the risk of forest fires down to a scorpion hiding under a rock.
The location is strongly influenced by the coastal Pyrenees Orientales, up towards Fitou, where wind turbines line up along the crests of hills and you can smell the garrigue baking in the sun. Other aspects are inspired by places a few miles inland; the lush grazing meadows and peach orchards of the Roussillon valleys.
Pea’s house itself is a construct of exteriors I’ve seen in photographs, some elements of my own current house and other bits that come from houses I’ve lived in or those belonging to people I know. I think you take what you need for the story.
When I was writing and editing I drew the house out in three dimensions, with the rooms, staircases, corridors and doors all mapped out and the cardinal points as reference, so I would know how the sun rose and set over the house. I drew in the surrounding countryside, the village and the meadows. I needed to be confident that whatever time of day it was, I knew where the shadows were falling and where the wind would be blowing from, because those things were important to Pea.
I know that setting so intimately now, I’m almost surprised it doesn’t really exist.
Southern France is a beautiful place to live, but daily life in the heat of summer is very different to coming here on holiday. The heat is inescapable. The house is the coolest place, but you can only keep it that way by having the shutters closed, meaning it’s also very dark inside. Cave-like. Outside, the heat bears down on you from before 6am to late at night. It’s too hot to sleep. It’s too hot to eat much of anything. Cold showers take on an unimagined bliss. Whilst holiday makers are drinking cold beers and taking dips in the sea, the local people are sitting in the shade, drinking water and waiting for the 15 août when the heat-wave usually breaks.
This inertia is reflected in Maman, who as well as being floored by the fatigue and difficulties of late pregnancy is also weighed down by her grief. With no-one to help her, she is waiting to get through it, waiting for the situation to break. Although Maman is not the narrator, I feel she’s the dominant character in one way, because she’s the focus of Pea and Margot’s attentions and because of what we expect from her. Just like the heat, her depression influences everything that happens in ways we can’t control.
But Pea is the antidote to this, because she sees it differently. She is looking for ways to fix things, to make it all better. After all, as Margot says, There are more than a thousand things in the world…and one of them must make Maman happy.
Five minutes from where I live you can walk down through a small patch of grape vines, and down into a small meadow with an apple orchard. The paths are lined with brambles and at the bottom there is a small stream that runs down off the mountain towards the river Têt.
A few years ago, when I was often alone for days with a toddler and a baby, I was restricted in how far I could walk away from home. We don’t have a garden, so I spent a lot of time down there with the baby in a sling or in a pushchair and my toddler poking around in the grass for ladybirds, clovers and the like.
From my own perspective I was on a short leash, and on occasion I longed for the days when I could roam further afield. But I could see that for my 2 year-old, the meadows were vast and magical, and with my wings temporarily clipped, the best escape for me was into her world, to see the world as it really was and to live its magic with her.