The Colours by Juliet Bates – an intensely written book with a overwhelming sense of place


This book shows a very clever overlap between characters as the time spans between 1912 and 1981. It tells the story of a girl then woman, Ellen and her son Jack, who both have a unique hypersensitivity to colour, sound, views and people’s appearance. Ellen in particular sees and hears colour, smells the particular odour that people give off, is sensitive to the feel of sand, dust and much else. Jack shares some of her sensitivity to colour but both have a fixation with a view over sea to a particular point of land, known locally as the Snook, with a tower. Both are told that they emerged from the area, part of the sand and isolated countryside of the north east of England. This book manages to be both highly detailed as it describes a tree, a sliver of stone and grains of sand caught up in a hem. It also carries through great sweeps of landscape and views, the feelings that are created with the sights and sounds in the immediate environment. A realistic and intense read in many ways, it looks at people’s lives and loves over several decades, as the story alternates between the woman and man. This is an ambitious and complex story of fear and love, the power of the church in one person, the overwhelming obsession with place. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book.


As the book opens the young Ellen is tending to her father, aware of the enormous importance of their surroundings to their lives. He has always told her that they originated from the sand of the Snook, the red sand that gets everywhere and is nearly impossible to remove. As her father dies, leaving Ellen and her brother Henry without a parent, Ellen is sent to a convent, where the treatment is harsh, as a result of the local priest’s intervention. Belatedly, Henry reclaims his sister and takes her to work for Mrs Tibbs, a blind and sad woman who comes to appreciate Ellen’s gift for description. Jack’s conception and birth changes things, as Ellen must consider life as a sole parent. As he grows Jack discovers that he also values the landscape and views of his native area. As war comes, events overtake both Jack and Ellen, he must learn to survive and use his gift, or at least combine his special insight with a means to live.


This is a very special book which celebrates a gift of sensitivity and obsession, an intensely written overview of lives and experiences which span most of a century. It comments on the cruelty of the treatment of women, especially in the name of a version of religion. There is an overwhelming sense of place for both the characters and reader; the vision of the writer is almost three dimensional, as it effectively conveys the tiniest sound and sight which is summoned up in words. It actually quotes George Elliot concerning the noise created by the smallest creature, that “we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence”, as it details the impact of the tiniest creature on the lives of Ellen and to a certain amount, of Jack. I recommend this book to those who revel in both careful writing and superb characterisation.


This is a very good read, and very different from many of the other books I have reviewed here – it is a very special read. As I have said before, I know have access to more of my fiction books, so who knows what will be gracing the next few posts! I also found a few books that I have read and not reviewed yet, so my work here is still to do!