If “uplit” is the name of a new sub-genre of fiction written with appeals for kindness and understanding at its core (think Gail Honeyman’s Costa Debut Novel Award-winning Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or the work of Joanna Cannon as examples), I am not sure what name should be given to novels with severely damaged protagonists.
Will Dean’s Dark Pines features a newspaper reporter who is profoundly deaf, Elizabeth Healey and Joanna Canon have both written high profile bestsellers dealing with dementia, the central character of Mark Haddon’s Whitbread Book of the Year-winning The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is autistic and just about every Scandinoir woman detective is “damaged” in some way or other. Is this a new trend?
None of them, however, can hold a candle to 13-year-old Jasper, the central character and exclusive voice of Sarah J. Harris’s hyped first adult novel The Colour Of Bee Larkham’s Murder. Jasper is autistic and also suffers from synaesthesia and prosopagnosia. Synaesthesia is a condition in which one or more of your senses is merged with another rather than experienced separately. In Jasper’s case this means that he sees colours and shapes associated with sounds. He will, for example, recognise a voice by its colour.
Jasper also has extreme difficulty in recognising faces, a condition known as prosopagnosia. This extends even to members of his own family, whom he may fail to recognise if they are wearing unfamiliar clothes. As profound learning difficulties go, therefore, Jasper is at a fairly extreme end of the spectrum.
Like Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep, Bee Larkham is set in a pretty average street in suburbia, Vincent Gardens. Apart from Jasper, its small cast is easily recognisable, with its self-appointed guardian of the street’s security and morality, his sidekick, and the noisy intrusive newcomer who must be put in her place. This, Harris is saying to us, is a very ordinary world, at least on its surface. The extraordinary elements in it are Jasper, Bee Larkham and the parakeets.
The catalyst for change in Vincent Gardens is the return of Bee Larkham to number 20 after the death of her mother. Self-exiled to Australia after a rebellious and disturbed childhood, Bee has returned to sort out her mother’s house and possessions.
She is a blast of fresh air. Jasper loves the loud music she plays late into the night as he dances wildly to its beat and glories in its colours: “The glossy, deep magenta cello; the dazzling bright electric dots of the piano and the flute’s light pink circles with flecks of crimson formally announced that someone new had arrived on the street.”
And with Bee come the parakeets. Already resident in the nearby parkland, they become insistently present as Bee provides multiple feeders for them and encourages them to nest, despite the strong protests of the street’s self-appointed guardian David Gilbert.
Bee and Jasper bond over the parakeets. For Jasper they are a wonderful source of dynamic colour and movement, the subjects of numerous paintings as he tries to record them in the brilliant colours he sees and hears. Bee invites him into her house and allows him to watch them in close up from her bedroom. But it is soon clear that Bee has other motives of which Jasper is innocent, employing him as a messenger boy and exploiting his slim grasp of objective reality while using the parakeets as leverage.
Given the book’s title it is not hard to guess Bee’s fate. The tension in the novel turns on the degree to which Jasper is involved or indeed is guilty of her murder. This, remember, is a boy who cannot recognise faces and because of his autism panics very easily if normal routines are not observed. A limited ability to make sense of the outside world makes him very vulnerable. He is convinced of his own guilt; the police are more cautious. Slowly but surely Jasper comes to realise in the book’s denouement that there is a great deal that he has mis-read and misunderstood.
This is a book that stands or fails by its portrayal of Jasper. Harris provides an appendix of articles, books and websites dealing with synaesthesia and prosopagnosia that suggest her research into this fascinatingly “abnormal” world is extensive. Jasper is mostly convincing, although the change of tone in the book’s epilogue is less so. Nonetheless, The Colour Of Bee Larkham’s Murder explores a world which for most of us will be unfamiliar and of interest. It certainly makes for an involving read, although initially the endless repetition of colours and the stress on his synaesthesia is somewhat tiresome.
Bee Larkham was the recipient of a very large six-figure advance and my guess is that it will be handsomely repaid. After all, all the other books in the “disadvantaged protagonist” genre have done well. Harris offers not only an insightful look into an entirely different way of experiencing our world but also an intriguing thriller. Its success, I would estimate, is assured.
The Colour Of Bee Larkham’s Murder
Author: Sarah J. Harris
Publisher: HarperCollins, crime fiction