A teenager with autism becomes embroiled in the murder of a neighbor—but as culprit or witness?
Comparisons of this novel with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) will be inevitable but, sadly, unwarranted. Thirteen-year-old Jasper Wishart, the protagonist of Harris’ first novel for adults (after having written YA under a pseudonym), is on the spectrum, and what an infinitely varied spectrum it is. He has synesthesia—sights and, particularly, in his case, sounds evoke a range of colors most people can’t see. But he is face-blind, unable to recognize even those closest to him except by hue of voice and clothing. He takes everything literally, including metaphors, idioms, and empty threats, like those of his blustery neighbor David Gilbert. The narrative, told exclusively from Jasper’s first-person perspective, ratchets between past and present as Jasper tries to reconstruct events in his London street by painting the colors of his memories. He thinks he killed his new neighbor, Bee Larkham, but has only disordered images, a bloodied knife, and his own stomach slash wound as evidence. His father, who has raised Jasper alone since the deaths of his mother and grandmother, is coping by covering up—Jasper is sure Dad disposed of Bee’s body. Jasper recalls how Bee, a musician and Australian transplant, fomented neighborhood squabbles by blaring loud music and deliberately luring wild parakeets to feeders in her front yard. (These descendants of escaped pet birds have become an invasive pest in the U.K.) Even more disruptive is Bee’s questionable behavior with her young music students, especially Jasper’s schoolmate Lucas Drury. Although Harris strives to keep things coherent with chapter headings dated using Jasper’s idiosyncratic color markers, readers must work to make sense of it all. Unpacking Jasper’s color-coded reality becomes as tedious as deciphering hieroglyphics. Those few instances when Jasper delivers a straight narrative are essential for exposition purposes but feel like a violation of the novel’s fourth wall. The end result of Harris’ determination to spare no synesthetic detail, is, well, monochromatic.
A potentially engaging mystery embedded in an overly daunting puzzle.