Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Colours by Juliet Bates. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Fleet for my digital review copy.
About the Book
Ellen sees the world differently from everyone else, but living in a tiny town in the north-east of England, in a world on the cusp of war, no one has time for an orphaned girl who seems a little strange. When she is taken in to look after a rich, elderly widow all seems to be going better, despite the musty curtains and her aging employer completely out of touch with the world. But pregnancy out of wedlock spoils all this, and Ellen is unable to cope.
How will Jack, her son, survive – alone in the world as his mother was? Can they eventually find their way back to each other?
Format: Hardcover (384 pages) Publisher: Fleet
Publication date: 9th April 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction
When her father dies, Ellen and her older brother, Henry, are separated and Ellen is sent to the Sacred Heart convent school. She struggles to conform to its strict regime (echoes of Frost in May by Antonia White) but is rescued by the offer of a role as companion to an elderly, blind widow, Mrs Tibbs, who lives in a large, secluded house. Gradually, Ellen encourages the old lady to focus on the present rather than the past. I was reminded of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, especially when Ellen and Beadie, the cook/housekeeper, open the shuttered windows of the house to let the light stream in. Ellen becomes Mrs Tibbs’ eyes to the outside world, describing the scenes she can see from the windows.
Ellen has a distinctive vision of the world in which scents, sounds people and even emotions are manifested in colours (the medical term is synesthesia). During her time at the Sacred Heart, weekly confession is “a dull purple” and mass “a deep unpleasant brown”. At night, the whispers of the girls with whom she shares a dormitory are “shaded with a pale pink tint” although the girls themselves are white, “ghost white, like badly painted whitewash with just a hint of colour showing through.” And when she thinks of Beadie it is as “the colour of stewed prunes”.
For Ellen a colour is more than just blue, green and so on. For her, blue can be the blue of a kingfisher’s wing, a jay’s feather or cornflowers; green is the green of a cooking apple, an oily puddle, the leather cover of a book, lichen growing on a wall, the scales on a monkey puzzle tree.
Ellen’s son, Jack, whom the reader first meets as a young boy in 1931, shares some of his mother’s visual sensitivity but in his case this is initially expressed in an awareness of symmetry and perspective. Parted from his mother, who has withdrawn into her own inner world, Jack has only his uncle Henry to guide him through life. Jack secures an apprenticeship in a drawing office which seems to solidify his view of the world as black and white, expressed “in bold horizontals and verticals, in plans and elevations”. He delights in the lines he draws “straight and shining, no smudges or blotches, no multicoloured stains, no random pools of colour”. Later, Jack’s artistic talent expresses itself in less rigid ways.
Religion, in particular Catholicism, lurks in the background of the story and in the slightly creepy figure of the local priest, Father Scullion. Ellen’s brother is a devout Catholic but seems in a perpetual struggle between the teachings of his faith and his natural inclinations. Ellen’s experiences have left her with doubts about the existence of an afterlife. Perhaps, this is all there is, and it’s enough?
Alternating between the points of view of Ellen and Jack, and spanning a period of seventy years, the reader gradually learns of the events which have shaped both their lives, some of which are sad echoes of what has gone before. The book reveals the consequences of breaching societal norms or simply of having an outlook on the world that is different from that of other people.
A slow burn of a book, The Colours is a tender exploration of love, loss and the legacy of the past.
In three words: Gentle, insightful, imaginative
Try something similar: The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson
About the Author
Juliet Bates was born in the north-east of England. After studying art and art history, she has worked as a lecturer in art schools in the UK and now in France. The Colours is Juliet’s second novel; her debut, The Missing, was published by Linen Press in 2009, and her short stories have appeared in British and Canadian journals and magazines.