Book review: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

 

Jasper Wishart is a remarkable 13-year-old boy.

A child on the autism spectrum, he also has synaesthesia, a condition which joins one or more senses together, meaning that where we might just hear someone speaking, someone like Jasper both hears them and sees what they are seeing in various colours (or might taste it).

He also has prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder which renders someone like Jasper unable to recognise peoples’s faces; it doesn’t matter how familiar you are to him or how many times he’s seen you, he can’t remember what you look like and must rely on telltale giveaways such the colour of glasses or a regularly watch or item of clothing (and if these change then he’s back to square one, a fact that is used effectively by the author in this novel).

It’s an extraordinary mix and one that makes Jasper, the protagonist in The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J, Harris a wholly-captivating, utterly-unique young man who provides a perspective on the world many of us would have little to no familiarity with.

“Bee Larkham’s murder was ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles.
That’s what I told the first officer we met at the police station, before Dad could stop me. I wanted to confess and get it over and done with. But he can’t have understood what I said what I said or he forgot to pass on the message to his colleague who’s interviewing me now.” (P. 1)

While some might see this as some sort of affliction, Jasper loves that he can see the world this way; it’s all he’s ever known, and while he knows that his synaesthesia and prosopagnosia make him different to most other people, and disadvantages him in certain situations, he wouldn’t trade his gifts as he sees them for anything.

It does however make life challenging for Jasper’s father Ed, a former British marine who, due to his many postings in combat zones, doesn’t have the rapport with Jasper that his “cobalt blue” mother, who dies four years previously from cancer (and whose cardigan is a reassuring safety talisman for Jasper when he’s traumatised) once did.

It means that the now single father he has his hands full with a son who is both enabled and incapacitated by his conditions, and who relates events that take place in his wife in the most literal, direct way possible.

This causes problems of course at school where other kids don’t tolerate Jasper’s inability to know who they are until thy speak them (and even then, this mode of recognition can be muddied if a cold or an emotional state changes the tenor, and thus colour, of their voice) and becomes almost overwhelmingly problematic when the new neighbour in the street, Bee Larkham, who’s moved into her mother’s old home,  causes all kinds of neighbourhood before finally disappearing and possibly ending up murdered.

The thing is, Jasper, who’s one of the only people who saw Bee on the Friday in question (an Indigo Blue day) isn’t unable to relate events like his father, who works hard to protect him from the fallout of this horrific event or neighbours like Ollie Watkins (home to clean out his mum’s house) and long-time resident David Gilbert who abhors the parakeets which Jasper loves with an obsessive regard and which he paints with endless fascination (syneasthesia means his paintings are highly abstract, a sense of the object, creaure or event rendered in colours either vivid or subdued, or a mix of both).

 

Sarah J. Harris (image courtesy official Sarah J. Harris Twitter account)

 

All of which makes the events of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder a fascinatingly-different, engrossing murder mystery that pivots just as much, if not more, on who Jasper is and what’s going on in his life than finding out who killed her (if anyone; for much of the novel, despite Jasper being adamant she’s dead, no one knows exactly where she is).

Harris writes beautifully with real insight and understanding – like any author worth their salt, she has researched and consulted widely to give the most accurate portrayal of someone with synaesthesia and prosopagnosia, albeit, as she admits, with some poetic license thrown in for good storytelling measure – gifting us with a picture of a young man grappling with grief, self-worth and a sometimes subsuming sensory overload that makes life almost impossibly difficult to traverse.

This difficulty becomes even more pronounced when Jasper is plunged into the midst of the missing person/murder investigation, an extraordinarily-stressful event that creates fissures in the already-troubled relationship with his father – Ed clearly loves him but is stymied by his lack of understanding or connection much of the time – and which complicates his life as he finds people don’t always mean what they say, an issue when you navigate based on the surety of what people are saying to you (and the colours they create, the consistency of which is a navigable aid for Jasper, especially when he’s treading on uncertain ground).

“I don’t need a paintbrush. I’m painting the colours in my head while Leo talks to the detectives.
The day of Bee Larkham’s murder should have been a breathtaking indigo because it was a Friday, but all I coudld see was sky blue. The colour of Bee Larkham’s voice.” (p. 304)

Harris has written a novel unlike any I’ve read in quite some time.

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder manages to be both quirky and offbeat and deeply, affectingly emotionally-resonant, and incredibly beautifully illuminating as you discover how everyday words and figures of speech and emotional states come with their own colour designations.

Not every person with synaesthesia sees words in the same way as Jasper himself admits; his mother also had the condition and saw things differently to him but their bond was strong because she was the one person who really understood him and to whom he never had to explain himself (although this is always a challenge with Jasper articulating how he sees the world in the colours it presents, something few other people without the condition can appreciate).

It’s this bond that creates one of the great emotional anchor points of The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder as Jasper struggles to not explain the events of Bee Larkham’s disappearance and murder to his father and the police, but to find his ways through the terrain of life without his mother as champion and guide.

There are times, thanks to the richness of Harris’s writing that you want to hold Jasper close and reassure him that everything will be all right; but then you realise you can’t be sure of that as the narrative keeps you guessing right until the final dramatic and emotionally-affecting chapters.

This is a remarkable novel, one that is quirky and unusual and yet deeply human and real all at once, that doesn’t pull its emotional punches on any level and doesn’t attempt to sugar coat Jasper’s experiences nor those of Bee, Ollie, Ed and many others, all of whom are painted in vividly-arresting fullness such that you are engrossed not simply by the storyline but these utterly-compelling characters.

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder reminds us at every turn that there are many colours in life’s spectrum and we can’t ever assume we see all of them, and we would be wise always pay attention to people like Jasper who can provide a whole new, illuminating perspective on this many-hued thing we call life.

 

(cover image courtesy Simon and Schuster)

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