Hot Sun and Brimstone and Dust and Autumn Leaf: A Review of Jenny Valentine’s ‘Fire Colour One’

Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine (published by HarperCollins UK in July) is a deceptively slight novel and one which can be read in a single sitting.  When you have a TBR pile as gravity-defying as mine, these are major points in a book’s favour.  The book focuses on Iris, a teenager who is suddenly reintroduced to her estranged father, only to find that he is dying. Iris’ mother, Hannah, is a gold-digger and Ernest, Iris’ father, is vastly wealthy and in possession of an impressive art collection, which Hannah sees as her meal-ticket. The scope of the novel is small, focusing principally on these characters and their relationships, and doing so very effectively.

I didn’t have him for long enough. That’s the bare bones of it. I wasn’t ready, once I’d found him, to let go.

cover66687-mediumLooking at the subject matter, you would assume Fire Colour One would fit into the category of mawkish tear-jerkers for young adults, but, really, this is not the case.Valentine keeps her cast of characters small and doesn’t give us any superfluous detail, something else which I appreciated; while we are given details about both Hannah and Ernest which make sense of their behaviour, the reader is not dragged through pages of unnecessary exposition. Valentine’s style is descriptive but economical, making Fire Colour One an easy read.

Some days inside my head there is noting but fire. Most nights I sleep deep inside its bright, fast blooms.

Iris is an interesting character. Clearly shaped hugely by her dysfunctional relationship with her horrendous mother – who, for example, insists Iris call her Hannah because to be ‘mum’ would “age her” – Iris has just one friend and an obsession with fire, both of which mark her out as a protagonist different to those found elsewhere on the YA shelves. She’s not self-pitying or, on the surface, even particularly angry, making her easy to relate to for the reader. Iris’ developing relationship with Ernest is genuinely touching but not in a tear-jerking or emotionally manipulative way; both characters are realistically drawn and so their bond rings true as well.  I’ve mentioned how awful Hannah is; again, Valentine gives some background to her horrible behaviour but not in such a way that the reader is forced to sympathise with her. Sometimes, I just want to dislike fictional characters and I appreciate it when writers allow me to do this.

I can’t really think of anything like Fire Colour One amongst the YA books I’ve read this year; Valentine eschews many of the cliches we’ve become accustomed to (there is not, for example, a romantic element to Iris’ story), and in doing so creates a realistic and completely convincing narrative, economical without being clinical.  While reading, I also remembered reading another Jenny Valentine novel, Finding Violet Park, a few years ago and being similarly struck by its style.  Fire Colour One is a book I’d happily recommend; I’d even consider teaching it to my teenage students in the future, and that is not a decision I take lightly…

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