Family ties, lies, and lots and lots of fire
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 4 of 8
Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine tells the story of Iris, a teenager recently reunited with her dying father, Ernest, after twelve years of separation. Since the age of four, Iris has lived with her mother Hannah in the States. Hannah is a self-absorbed walking disaster, and her boyfriend Lowell is a failed wannabe actor, constantly schmoozing with everyone and anyone he thinks might provide him with his lucky break. She has always believed her father didn’t want her and consequently is not that interested in seeing him. But Hannah’s financial situation brings Iris back to London and back to Ernest’s estate, where the book begins.
The book starts with a bang
The book begins explosively and in a very gripping way. Not a great deal is explained but the language hits hard and it hooks you as a reader. We are plunged into Iris’s world and we don’t immediately find out much about who she is. What is covered in quite some detail is Iris’s proclivity for fire.
To put it bluntly, Iris is a pryomaniac. She loves setting fires. She finds release in the striking of a match, the sweet smoky smell of things burning. The language Valentine uses to describe this is very evocative. Her metaphors are exciting and romantic, and carry you with them much like ash on an updraft. Sometimes I felt it was a bit much – anyone who has received a face full of smoke knows it’s actually unpleasant, not reminiscent of a wine label promising fruity notes and chocolate undertones. But Iris seems to love it, inevitably almost fatally when she sets a fire in her school and finds herself locked in the same room as her blaze.
Fire is Iris’s way of controlling her feelings. She internalises a lot, likely due to Hannah eroding her self-worth over the years, and she lets out her stress by lighting fires. Her other release is her bond with Thurston, an outsider from New York city who recognises Iris as an outlier like himself. Thurston orchestrates ‘moments’, performance art using unknowing subjects (including members of the public, Hannah and Lowell, and Iris herself) that he asks Iris never to record, just to enjoy and experience.
I enjoyed the structure: the book begins immediately after the end, and in between it covers Iris’s reunion with Ernest, the stories they tell each other, and various moments from Iris’s life in flashbacks (mainly, setting fires and bonding with Thurston). We also find out about Ernest’s relationship with Hannah, and how she was pretty awful from the get-go. The intervening years as Hannah drags Iris from from credit card debt to credit card debt are mainly glossed over, with a few pivotal moments detailed. Valentine orchestrates the build-up masterfully through these vignettes, painting a picture for us one stroke at a time and this makes the book a really pleasurable and exciting read.
There is also lots of art
Art is another key theme of the book. Ernest made his fortune collecting and selling art and, we find out later, selling forgeries – a nice way to position him as more aligned with the Thurstons of the world than the Hannahs. He gets one over on people but by creating, not destroying.
The twist in Valentine’s writing is that this is not a book about a pyromaniac being reunited with her art-collecting father. It’s about the mutual recognition between Iris, Ernest, and Thurston, each using their own medium – fire, forgery, and flair – to express what they are feeling. For Iris, it’s watching something burn; for Ernest, the thrill of selling a forgery; and for Thurston, it’s the moments he creates.
The title itself actually tells us what the book is about, referencing the Yves Klein painting FC1 (Fire Color 1), below [image courtesy of Nord on art].
Klein used paint, a blowtorch, and human models to create this piece. Valentine uses Ernest, Iris, and Thurston to the same effect.
And it’s not actually about fire
Despite liking Iris I wanted her to stand up for herself more, and in particular stand up to her awful mother. Hannah gets her comeuppance – and how – but it seems to be really Ernest who gives it to her, not Iris. Even when Iris finds out she was effectively kidnapped by Hannah, that it was her own mother who fed her lies about her father for years and years, there is no dramatic confrontation. Not that I think there always has to be a dramatic climax – I’m sure the author would agree that an explosion of temper is not Iris’s style, that she’s more the slow burn type – but, for someone who enjoys setting fire to things, I felt that Iris was too much of a spectator at Ernest’s show. She participates passively as she used to in Thurston’s ‘moments’, and indeed here it’s the same thing – Iris is a piece of the puzzle that Ernest uses to get back at Hannah.
But then I realised while writing this review that Iris is actually a voyeur and her role is to observe. Whether it’s a fire burning (regardless of who set it) or one of Thurston’s moment, Iris is not strictly the agent and actually enjoys distance from the event itself; for example, she rejoices in knowing that her first fire is burning while on the New York subway home, not while watching it. She even falls out with Thurston when he makes her an unwitting part of a moment rather than allowing her to spectate.
The slightly corny subtitle – ‘love is the greatest work of art’ – makes sense when you realise that the whole point of the book is to build up to Ernest’s moment, his ultimate work of art dedicated to Iris, and so it doesn’t matter that she is not necessarily the one to crush her overbearing mother in an act of revenge – the point is that she is there to see it. Art is meaningless without an observer, without someone to appreciate it and understand it. In the end, the greatest power does lie with Iris as the validator of Ernest’s work.
On first impressions, I enjoyed the book and found it beautifully written and carefully crafted but thought it was not a sure contender for this year’s Carnegie Medal. On reflection, though, the added layer of complexity really got to me and I think it has got a really good chance from a technical point of view. A slight hesitation as well on whether every reader will get that layer of complexity straightaway.