Author: R.J. Anderson.
Publisher: Orchard Books.
Synopsis (taken from GoodReads): Once upon a time there was a girl who was special.
This is not her story.
Unless you count the part where I killed her.
Sixteen-year-old Alison has been sectioned in a mental institute for teens, having murdered the most perfect and popular girl at school. But the case is a mystery: no body has been found, and Alison's condition is proving difficult to diagnose. Alison herself can't explain what happened: one minute she was fighting with Tori -- the next she disintegrated. Into nothing. But that's impossible. Right?
Cover impressions: I am a sucker for the dark side of literature. Growing up, I went through a massive phase of reading books about crime, serial killers and down-trodden detectives looking to solve the case, so seeing the synopsis of this book on NetGalley made it an instant must read for me. The book was surprising on many levels and it’s a real genre bender, not quite the straight forward dark thriller I thought it was going to be, but did it work?
Some of it worked rather well. It becomes evident very early on that Alison has the condition synaesthesia, where one’s senses cross over and interact in interesting ways. For Ali, this involves different numbers and letters having distinctive tastes and colours as well as some surprising experiences that occur throughout the book. I really enjoyed the way this was incorporated into the story and it provided a fascinating view of the world from a truly unique perspective. Anderson’s prose is particularly strong during these points and also rather beautiful. The more lyrical moments of prose don’t always work within the context of the story though; sometimes it felt a little jarring. It was always enjoyable to read but I questioned whether it was the right stylistic choice at these moments in time. While Ali’s narration is fascinating, it also means we sometimes don’t get a fully realised view of the world she lives in. This isn’t a problem to begin with – Anderson effectively creates a sense of foreboding and intrigue as Ali discovers what has happened – but then it goes a little off the rails, mainly because of Ali.
I didn’t mind Ali as a character. I understood her fear and sympathised with it for most of the book, plus her narration, as I said, was very lyrical and interesting at times. However, her decision making process left me feeling a little frustrated. I’m not a fan of characters avoiding the obvious for the sake of plot development. Sometimes it felt like Ali wasn’t allowed to progress because the author had decided it wasn’t time for that yet. While I understood Ali’s difficulties and worries over making certain choices, it still didn’t feel natural. I also felt like we didn’t get a lot of characterisation for the supporting players, especially Ali’s fellow patients and the mysterious Dr Faraday.
There are two small, very specific things in the book that I really want to touch upon, and to do this there may be slight spoilers.
Unfortunately, the book casually drops in one of my biggest irritants in YA fiction – the casual gay joke. One of Ali’s fellow patients, who is bipolar, makes several references to Dr Faraday being gay (he isn’t gay but the boy, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, keeps saying he is out of jealousy, I think) and no-one chastises him for it. Ali silently expresses disapproval but nobody points out how stupid and insulting it is to casually use homosexuality as a negative marker of someone. The boy was frequently punished for saying stupid thing so why not this? It’s a small thing, I know, but I’ve seen it used so frequently in fiction without any character, or even the omniscient narration, taking the time to say it’s wrong, and it bugs me because we’ve still got this society that uses ‘That’s gay’ as some ultimate insult. Homosexuality is still somehow the acceptable insult these days.
The other problematic element I had also involves this young man forcing himself on Ali. She pushes him back, screams and makes it pretty clear that she doesn’t want this and when the boy has the audacity to be insulted by this, she say sorry. Even though she mentions in her narration that she really isn’t sorry, she still says it. She didn’t have to say it! She wasn’t the one at fault here; mental illness or not, the woman, or man, shouldn’t apologise for having someone force his or herself upon her/him! Later on, the issue is dealt with and the boy is punished but this little scene still nagged at me so I had to address it.
Overall, I like a lot of thing about “Ultraviolet.” The incorporation of synaesthesia was fascinating and well handled, providing an often beautiful and unique narration, and the set-up is intriguing for the most part. I admire Anderson for taking the book out of the comfort zone and not sticking to the well worn and seductively easy routes YA has so often been taking lately. It doesn’t always work but I was never bored by what I read, even if some of it was a little sketchily developed. The strong elements that kept me reading were let down by some weaker moments of plotting and characterisation. I’m really not sure how to rate this book. It’s either a 2.5 or a 3 out of 5. There’s definitely a lot to enjoy in the book and it’s refreshing to see something unique in the genre right now, but for all its strengths it could have definitely been stronger.
2.5 or 3/5 (apologies for my indecisiveness, I genuinely spent ages trying to pick one and couldn’t!)
“Ultraviolet” will be available to read in USA on 2nd June 2011. I received my ARC from NetGalley.com.