Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Colour Of Rain - Emma Tennant

First published in 1963 under the pen name of Catherine Aydy, this is Tennant’s first novel. It recounts episodes in the lives of a group of privileged, empty people. A soap opera of childish adults, moving from one diversion to the next, pretending to be oh so civilized. But their world is like a sugar cage. Spun at random, colourless, flavourless and over sweet, brittle. It might be self-supporting, but it is obvious how easily it can break or dissolve.

All the activity is there, one suspects, to divert these people from the fact they stand on the edge of a great inner emptiness. If they did not fill their lives with the shiny baubles they can afford and the vacuous people who are all much the same, they would see the drop into nothing and like many when faced with such overwhelming existential horror; they would step off the edge.

Told largely through dialogue and a brittle prose that reflects the lives of its characters, this is an intriguing little novel. Although in some ways it records a very specific moment in time, that point when children stopped dressing like their parents, when music would influence a whole generation, when the ‘60s as a cultural phenomenon was about to begin, it also timeless. There are still people like this. The source of the money that allows such privileged living may have changed, but these people still flit like butterflies in their own little world. The horror of today is that they have such malign influence on the lives of others and in their own thoughtless way they fight to the death (usually someone else’s) to cling on to their privilege.

It is clearly a first novel from a time when novelists were expected to grow and were given time to do so by their publishers. But there is some fine writing here. Light, sharp, and full of an accurate social criticism that lifts the shiny surface and shows us what is beneath.