Review: Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine
By Lorna Collins
Fire Colour One is the story of a young girl, Iris, whose first meeting with her father, Ernest, is not until shortly before his death. The narrative revolves around Iris’s growing relationship with her father in the short period she has with him. However, we are introduced to the main characters immediately after Ernest’s funeral. The author takes us through the events leading up to the funeral, moving backwards and forwards in time throughout the book. Potentially, this could have been confusing, but Valentine handles it extremely well and we are taken, along with Iris, on a journey of discovery. Valentine manages to successfully blend instances in Iris’s previous life and her friendship with Thurston, with those of Ernest’s earlier life with his sister Margot, and then his later marriage and its subsequent break up. All this is seamlessly interwoven with the story of Iris’s reunion with her estranged father and the growth of their relationship. The book’s ending may be considered a little too contrived; however, I felt it worked well overall, leaving the reader feeling that justice was done.
Valentine uses contrasts in the book to highlight opposing views of certain issues. She quotes Grayson Perry’s autobiography in which he talks about going to college and learning art as something you do, then moving into a squat with people who lived it (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/watch.php?id=). Iris’s best friend, Thurston is still in California and although Iris has been unable to tell him of her departure to England, she constantly refers the reader back to some of his escapades, portraying him as an artist in the true sense of the word – someone who lives art, rather than someone for whom art is something you do. On the other hand, Ernest is a collector of works of art as possessions and for financial gain (although Iris discovers later that this is not the whole story). Iris’s relationship with Thurston, who likes her for who she is, also highlights the lack of a proper relationship with her mother, for whom Iris is merely a bargaining chip to be used to help her and Lowell acquire Ernest’s art collection.
Thurston is “off-camera” for most of the book, only making an appearance at the climax to the story. We never meet Ernest’s sister, Margot, in the flesh, but her presence is used to explain Ernest’s current position, as well as to draw Iris into feeling part of a ‘proper’ family, since they are considered to be alike in some ways.
The characterisations of Iris’s mother and step father are beautifully drawn. It could be argued that they came across as caricatures, but they are well portrayed and add a hint of humour to the book. I particularly enjoyed some of the descriptions of Hannah; for example, she “…tried to ditch her gloating expression but it stuck to her face like the wind had changed” (p61). Hannah is purely a gold-digger and there is no attempt to conceal her desire for her ex-husband’s speedy demise, and her determination to inherit his house full of masterpieces. Lowell, on the other hand, is the archetypal failed actor, constantly seeking his ‘big break’ and subjecting everything else to it.
The main protagonist, Iris, is not flawless. It soon becomes clear that she does not just like lighting the odd bonfire, but she is drawn to fire and uses it as a release from the tensions in her life. Her need for fire is likened to that of an addict for a needle (p29) and she has even set fire to her school on one occasion. We are drawn to empathise with Iris as Valentine as she explains how lighting fires makes her feel and helps her cope with the most stressful times in her life.
There are many references to famous works of art in the book, not least Yves Klein’s Fire Colour 1, the first in a series of untitled works where Klein uses nude models covered in paint to mark giant canvasses, then blow torches the canvases in various ways. This particular piece of art is used to provide a link between the pyromaniac tendencies of Iris, the art works that litter the narrative and the final outcome of the book.
Conclusion: There are some potentially weaker elements in the book, such as the characterisations of Hannah and Lowell, the appearance of Thurston towards the end, and the general neatness of the conclusion. However, I felt these were very skilfully handled and the book was generally very well-constructed and an enjoyable read, with a pleasing ending. I wonder if any other readers have been drawn to finding out more about Klein’s paintings, as I was.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.