Shadowing the Carnegie shortlist pushes me to read books that I wouldn’t pick up myself, and every year I discover a new author whose work really sparks my imagination. This year’s Spark Book for me is the magnificent ‘Fire Colour One’ by Jenny Valentine.
‘Fire Colour One,’ with its tag line, ‘love is the greatest work of art’, presents itself as a heart-warming family drama, but it is actually a well disguised thriller. The story is told from the perspective of Iris, who recounts the last weeks of her estranged father, Ernest’s, life. Iris’s voice is compelling and uncompromising as she brandishes her anger and hurt; at meeting the father she’d never known, losing him within weeks whilst watching him wither as she undercovers lies and truths that rock the foundations of which her life is built.
Iris’s life isn’t a happy one, living in America with her mother Hannah and her step-father, Lowell, to whom she feels no connection and whose outlooks on life are so removed from her own.
‘it’s beyond them that someone would go the whole day without looking in the mirror. They wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with a layer of light-reflecting foundation and an accessory with a three-figure price tag. Looking good is the actual bedrock of their moral code. ‘
Lowell is an aspiring actor and their extravagant lifestyle is on the plastic never-never. Iris is under no illusion that she’s loved, but is painfully aware that both her Mother and Step-Father blame her for their missed chances and failures. Iris copes with the anger that rages within her, by setting fires, it is her escape and peace. Her only friend is Thurston, a boy she met on the tube, an artist and charlatan in equal measure, whom accepts and embraces her for who she is.
Iris’s life is uprooted when Hannah and Lowell finally run out of credit, and they drag her across the Atlantic to England where they arrange to meet her father who abandoned them years before. To Hannah’s delight, Iris’s father, Earnest, is on his death bed, and with them never having been divorced she and Iris are set on inherit everything; his enormous house and its walls full of priceless art. As Hannah marches around the house making infantries and valuing the collection, Iris spends time with Ernest, learning the truth that he never abandoned her and has spent that past twelve years and much of his fortune searching for her. Despite having no memory of her father, Iris believes him implicitly and her empathy is magnified by her futile search for Thurston.
Hannah is no fool and soon realises that the special connection Earnest and Iris shared before they left is resurfacing, and so she starts games, scheming to get the lion’s share of the inheritance. Iris has no interest in the money, and although she despises her mother’s behaviour is happy for her to take it all. Negotiating with the ailing Earnest, Hannah takes everything, the whole art collection with the exception of the new accusation, the unverified (and therefore worthless) ‘Fire Colour One.’
But Earnest has secrets too, brilliant ones, which bear no resemblance to his mild mannered and reserved nature, and he’s been scheming. From beyond the grave Earnest (with a little help from Thurston) sends Iris one last declaration of his love.
‘Fire Colour One,’ is an emotional and riveting read, with a superbly plotted twist. Its description and metaphors are steeped with artist references and leap into the mind in vibrant colour. Jenny Valentine has created a masterpiece, one part family drama, and one part thriller. A, ‘Thomas Crown affair,’ for teenagers.