Review: Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson

Review: Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson

I realized then that even though I was a tiny speck in an infinite cosmos, a blip on the timeline of eternity, I was not without purpose.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was extraordinary. She could hear colors, and see sounds, and taste the difference between truth and lies.

Let go of your preconceived notions of reality. Then imagine a new reality, one where you hear colors, taste words and see sounds. You understand your sensations exist on a plane that others do not experience, so you cloak yourself in a garb of false normalcy hiding your true self and your understanding of the world from others. Even love has a unique flavor and sound only you can know.

When the music stopped, I'd been afraid even to look at him, sure he could hear my rapid heartbeat as clearly as I could see his steady teal-green one. When he'd slid away from me and gotten up, the wanting inside me had ached so hot that I'd had to stifle a whimper. Inwardly I'd berated myself, not just for feeling more than I should but for coming so close to showing it.

At sixteen, Alison's life has turned into a nightmare.

R.J. Anderston creates a portrait of extraordinary senses in Ultraviolet beginning with Allison awakening in a mental institution where she pieces together her tangled memory to discover what occurred to bring her there. She's stunned by her condition, by the yellow-gray stink of sweat surrounding her. She believes her worst nightmare as become her present reality.

She's gone crazy. Alison is sure of it. Her mother has locked her away.

Alison's mind drifts back to her childhood when she first realized she was different. Six year old Alison delights in the making of stars emanating from her mother clinking the cutlery as she washes the dishes. The air bursts with a sparkling display of color.

“Do it again!” I begged her, bouncing in my seat.
My mother glanced back at me. “Do what?”
“Make the stars.”
“Stars?”
It never occurred to me that she couldn't see what I was seeing. “The gold ones,” I said.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” she replied, and with a child's impatience, I hopped down from my stool to show her.
“Like this,” I said, taking two spoons and clanging them together. Each clink produced another starburst, expanding luminous through the air between us.
“You mean,” said my mother slowly, “the sound makes you think of stars?”
“No, it makes the stars. Why aren't you looking? You have to look,” I told her, and dashed the spoons again. “See?”

Alison's mother replied in a hissing voice filled with icy vexation that there are no stars. Seething with anger she slaps her daughter when Alison maintains that the stars exist. When she doesn't let go of what she has seen and continues asking her mother about not seeing the stars, her mother's response continues. She lashes out in angry words.

“No!” she shouted at me, her face a blotchy mask. “Normal people do not see things like that!”

Learning early in life that she wasn't normal, caused Alison to keep her magical sensory abilities a secret. Life was a full sensory experience kept within herself. Later, she explains how she perceives letters.

A tastes like blueberries--the kind that grow wild around here, not the big watery ones you get in stores. B is like those candy hearts they sell around Valentine's Day. And C doesn't have a flavor exactly, it's more like a very light perfume. Then there's D. I began to layer shades of blue and green, trying to get the right intensity of teal. D has hidden depths, it's sort of mysterious.

Alison's memory of the  moments before she was brought to the place that she now knows is a mental institution are equally mysterious. She's known for ten years that she's not normal, that others do not experience the world as she does. Now Alison must search her mind for the truth of what occurred to bring her to this frightening place.

She does remember an argument that morphed into a fight with her school's resident perfect teenage girl, Tori. Alison's memory leads her back to the moment when she reached in anger toward Tori. Suddenly like a candle extinguished Tori's gone. "I've killed her," Alison tells the authorities. "I've killed her. But, I do not know where her body is."

Enter Dr. Sebastian Faraday.

One afternoon Alison's sitting by a window gazing out at “steel wool clouds and the pine trees dripping with rain.” Dr. Minta, her assigned psychiatrist, introduces her to a graduate student in neuropsychology. His blue-violet eyes make her heart somersault in her chest.

Together, Faraday and Alison explore who Alison is: a synesthete, one whose sensory life is a Fantasia of sound, taste and color.

Synesthesia affects as many as one out of every twenty-three people. Some musicians and artists are thought to experience the world in a multi-sensory explosion of richness.  Knowing that others have a heightened sensory experience, comforts Alison, but she must deal with the reality of her incarceration in a psychiatric hospital and her missing classmate.

As the book progresses, so does the relationship between Faraday and Alison. Alison's sensory abilities, once a source of shame, become a source of strength.  She learns of others--successful, fulfilled people who have had the same gift of synethesia.

Now she understands that she is extraordinary and her challenge is to find her way back into the world, to unearth what happened to Tori who couldn't have simply disappeared in a poof and to follow her heart where it leads her. 

Anderson introduces an unexpected science fiction element that surprised me by not requiring suspension of disbelief.

The writing and the tale intertwine beautifully. I believed in the world that R.J. Anderson creates. I delighted in the beautiful sensory descriptions and the depth of the characters who face challenges beyond those of our place and time.

Written from Alison's perspective, a window into other ways of seeing and doing open bringing to the page a freshness and understanding of others.

Alison said it best when she stated that she knows,

"...what happened and what's real."

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