I rarely say this, but: I think I may honestly be too old to properly enjoy Fire Colour One.
Valentine’s book opens where its story ends, in the gardens of a house in (we don’t know this yet) England, where protagonist Iris has started a huge fire in honour of her father, whose funeral it is. The backstory is filled in gradually–Iris, her mother Hannah and her stepfather Lowell have been living in America, where the two adults are actors and models and Iris herself mooches about, starts fires, and has only one friend, Thurston. A combination of financial difficulties and Iris’s arsonous habits means that the three of them have moved back to England–where Iris’s biological father, Ernest, is dying. It turns out that Hannah’s stories about Ernest have been less than true–he didn’t abandon his daughter, he wants a relationship with Iris, and — this is important — he’s a millionaire who lives in a country mansion and collects famous art.
[Possible/definite spoilers.] Art is obviously important to Fire Colour One–the book is named after Yves Klein’s fc1 (used to illustrate this post because I like it better than the cover; sorry, cover artist). Thurston loves Klein, who “brought art out of the airless studio and back to life”; and who died tragically young. Both Thurston and Iris engage in forms of performance art–Iris describes her firestarting tendencies in artistic terms, and Thurston arranges public spectacles– we’re told about a mock funeral procession involving pigment bombs, a hearse and loud music, and we see him create a sort of shrine to Iris on a sidewalk, so that strangers come by and (assuming the girl in the picture is dead) pay their respects to it–they are somewhat startled to see the living Iris appear. Ernest, it turns out, is a talented artist who also happens to enjoy its performative aspects–the conclusion of the book, in which Ernest manages, from beyond the grave, to thwart Hannah and hand over his vast fortune to Iris, is as much a work of art as any of Ernest’s paintings.
There’s a lot to like about Fire Colour One. Its prose is genuinely good and willing to do more than just tell a story; though it needs to be a little infodumpy to tell the reader about Klein (I knew nothing about him other than that Klein blue was a thing), it doesn’t over-signal its constant return to the subject of art; Iris’s habit of starting fires is cause for concern to the adults around her (apart from Ernest, whose priorities are a bit dubious, really) but the book treats it as merely a part of who she is and never risks turning it into an Issue.
But then there’s Iris-and-Thurston and Iris-and-Ernest.
“I’m glad you know a little about art,” says Ernest, “and the great man”. Iris has just finished telling him (and us) what she knows about Yves Klein. “I know what Thurston taught me,” she shrugs. A shared love of art is what brings Iris and Ernest and Iris and Thurston together, but both relationships seem to take the form of the older, better-informed man “teaching” Iris. I can’t remember a moment when Iris has something to teach these characters–even her explanations of why she starts fires seem to chime with things they’ve already heard before, so that her experience is one of being understood, rather than helping them to understand. At the end of the book we discover that Thurston and Ernest have been speaking, have formed a friendship (bonding over art and Iris, presumably), and one of Ernest’s final acts (apart from the big art thing, and the big tricking Hannah out of the money thing) has been to return Iris’s lost friend to her; to restore Thurston and Iris’s relationship. That relationship may be a romantic one or a very intense platonic one, but the whole thing has for me some of the implications of fathers of the bride handing over their daughters to new designated male protectors.
I don’t think this is merely an unfortunate gender dynamic that has crept into the book, though; I think it’s fundamental to both relationships. I suggest at the beginning of this post that I may be too old to fully appreciate this book, and one of the reasons for that is Thurston. Thurston is a Vonnegut fan–of course he is. Thurston makes art. Thurston is skinny and beautiful and romantically poor. Thurston is full of information about certain sorts of artists and writers, and he loves to share this information with his younger female friend. He’s a slightly cooler version of the time in your teens when you had a crush on the guy who was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a reader in their teens could access some of that attraction; could have it underlay the book. (As an adult, I found myself thinking instead of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley mooching around glumly in American Beauty; I don’t think the book intended this to be as funny to me as it was.) But though I’m thankfully immune at my age to the specific charms of earnest teenage boys who Know About Art, I’m not immune to the larger desire to be approved of by men who know (or think they know, or can make me think they know) more than me. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s a specifically gendered thing.
And Fire Colour One ensures that we know that Iris has the approval and attention and adoration of these two men. Early in the book, when Iris is hurt and upset by Thurston’s fake shrine prank, he explains that the whole point is “You think people don’t see you [...] You think you’re forgettable” and “How come you can’t see how much you’re loved?” Ernest, too, has made his lost daughter the centre of his life even in her absence, and he too demonstrates this through a sort of art installation that has taken over a decade to prepare, and that becomes the climactic, closing scene of the book:
Ernest had laid traps and my mother stumbled right into them. There was something beneath the surface of every painting, written in zinc white, so it would show up under ultra-violet and stop my mother and Lowell dead in their tracks. Their world was about to end, and Thurston had made sure they had an audience. Better than my fire, better than any revenge I could ever have thought of, more than twelve years in the making, a message from Ernest for them and one for me too. Hannah checked every one, running from room to room by the end of it, followed by a stream of witnesses, hysterical, apocalyptic, catastrophic.
The same word on each of the forty-seven canvasses that filled the house. Bigger and bigger each time until it took up the whole space, waiting patiently, screaming out beneath layers of paint.
As I was reading the book I described it to friends as essentially a fantasy about being loved, and this is precisely what it is–about being loved by people whose love is worth something (arty men, within the book’s frame of reference; important men in general),being loved huge, demonstrable, spent-twelve-years-making-the-art-to-prove-it amounts. It’s a little bit ridiculous if it’s not a fantasy you share.
One doesn’t, of course, crave love from lesser beings. One aspect of Fire Colour One that is hard to reconcile with the rest of the book is its presentation of Iris’s mother and stepfather, for whom Iris has nothing but contempt. Which isn’t that surprising–for a teenage girl whose hobbies include Meaningful Conversation About Art and Burning Things to despise adults who seem shallow and interested only in clothes and careers makes sense. But Fire Colour One would have you believe that Lowell and Hannah are exactly as shallow, grasping, and unintelligent as Iris thinks. If I compared Iris and Thurston to characters in American Beauty, Lowell and Hannah, as parents, seem to come straight out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But they become irredeemably bad, rather than comically evil, early on in the book, when rather than protecting their daughter from an attempted rape by the son of a potential employer, they disbelieve and blame her for defending herself.
About halfway through the book some reason is given for Hannah’s grasping nature (by now Lowell has largely slipped out of the plot; he never particularly mattered). We’re told that when Hannah and Ernest met she was starving and homeless and beautiful and he was rich and unable to talk to attractive women except to babble about art and show off his expensive possessions. He asked her to stay; she did.
But by this point Hannah is already irredeemable, and it’s not in the book’s interest to redeem her; to make her in any way sympathetic would undercut the triumph of Ernest’s final victory over her (“[her] world was about to end”). Hannah’s grasping nature, her insistence on the monetary value of Ernest’s art; these aren’t presented to us as the natural reactions of someone who has been poor and desperate, but of someone who Is. Just. Bad.
I don’t know, though. Telling the story of their first meeting, Ernest explains that it was outside an antiques shop, that he’d fallen and hit his head and talked to her about how each of the wine glasses in the window was worth a couple of hundred pounds. “I could live on that for a month,” Hannah says. When Hannah has moved in with Ernest, he buys the wine glasses, and Hannah drops one on the kitchen floor.
“She did it on purpose,” he told me, “because they were hers now, because she could.”