03 July 2011

Yellow Tastes Like Sunshine

Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson (September 1, 2011, Carolrhoda Books)
Review by Kenzie Helene

The line between having the reader understand the plot and connect with the protagonist is a subtle one when the narrator is unreliable. R.J. Anderson, however, is accomplished at using the unreliable narrator as a tool in her new novel, Ultraviolet. From the very first page, Ultraviolet hooks you right through the gut and pulls you into a story that is fresh and mesmerizing. You're presented with a character who is flawed in a way that compels you to sympathize with her. Simultaneously, you’ll be awed at Alison’s increased senses, due to her sensory disorder, synesthesia. When she describes the sound of red, or how the number fourteen is seductive, you just have to smile and wish you could experience the the world and its values in the same way. At the same time, you mourn with Alison because of how hard it is for others to comprehend what she's going through. Alison is a strong main character, despite the fact the reader doesn't know whether she's completely sane or not.

Plot Summary Time!

Alison wakes up in a mental hospital after claiming she killed a popular classmate, Tori. The problem is that she remembers dissolving her, which is clearly not possible. While in the institution, she battles with her increasing problems with synesthesia, which the doctors tell her is just her brain blending her senses together. Colors don't actually have sound. It doesn’t help that her mother is starting to find her dangerous and doesn’t want her at the house. She also struggles with doctors who seem to be against her, until a new doctor shows up, understands Alison, and claims to know what happened to Tori.

Throughout the book, Alison feels that she must hide her synesthesia in order to fit in. She loves her extra senses, but has been taught that being viewed as different can ostracize a person. This relates to a lot of teenagers who feel the need to hide their differences in order to fit in and remain included in all those reindeer games. Anderson uses synesthesia to show an exaggerated difference that separates Alison from both her family and peers; a difference that is hard to hide. Young adults reading Ultraviolet feel the ultimate connection with Alison, since most people have traits they choose to conceal, whether it’s a disorder, their sexuality, family issues, or anything else in between.


Doctor Faraday, who starts to convince Alison that her synesthesia is a beautiful talent, is written so the reader is pulled into his words and believes in him as Alison does. Just as the reader burns and hurts with her every time her mother cannot understand that Alison has no control over her ability, no way to shut it off. The characters are written to haul the reader into a story that relies on the connection between them and Alison.

Along with strong characters, this book offers a solid plot. Each plot point leads into the next one perfectly, leaving no strings to pull on. Still, the book remains unpredictable until the finishing chapter. Despite having a clean and wrapped up plot, the reader must decide whether or not to trust Alison’s narrative. Managing to do both of those is an admirable feat for any author, but Anderson pulled it off and made it look easy.

After finishing Ultraviolet, I feel significantly deprived of the senses I felt while reading. I want the characteristics of numbers back. I want to be able to read it for the first time again. I’ve been walking around for days envisioning what color my food would taste like, or what shapes certain music would bring out. It was odd that Alison constantly describes things that taste good as blue, but also intriguing because there aren't many edible things that are naturally blue. Sure, you have blueberries and blue potatoes, but that's really it. Ultraviolet challenges the way you think and encourages you to reevaluate things that you would have considered disorders to instead be gifts, but also makes you re-imagine your senses and how you perceive the world. It is not just about rethinking how to use our hearts or our heads or eyes, but how to use our fingers, our tongues, our nose and ears to the fullest extent.

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