Three years ago, Room took the world by storm. It takes a brave author indeed to want to write a book narrated by a five year old in the wake of Emma Donoghue’s phenomenon, but that’s what Claire King has done. And I don’t mind telling you that my heart sank upon realising that. Well, that and there were no speech marks in the book.
Pea narrates the book. She lives in Southern France, on a farm with her English mum and younger sister Margot. Pea’s mother is too sad to look after hear daughters, she’s almost too depressed to function. Pea’s mother lost a baby, and left her happiness behind in the hospital with it. More recently, Pea’s father has been killed in a farming accident. And Pea’s mum is pregnant again by her now dead husband. So you can understand why Mum takes to her bed most days, leaving Pea and Margot to fend for themselves over the long hot summer. They play in the meadow, where they meet Claude. An unlikely friendship forms, but Claude is hiding a grief all of his own.
Pea (Peony to her mum, Pivoine to her late French dad, so Pea to avoid conflict) is a highly precocious little girl. But she’s also a scared and sad little girl and that mixture is charming, beautifully and tenderly portrayed by King. My heart sinking, it turns out, was premature. Nothing much happens throughout the first 200 pages of this book, as three mismatched individuals find some common ground and help to heal the wounds the past has inflicted upon them, but you don’t care.
It’s a measure of King’s skill that while you find yourself being beguiled by Margot and Pea’s adventures with Claude, the ducks all being set up doesn’t really intrude into the narrative. So when she spends the last 65 pages shooting them down, it makes for a quietly spectacular denouement. It is charming as it both warms and breaks your heart. It’s an extremely assured debut and marks King out as someone whose follow up you should all be eagerly awaiting.