Alison Marie Jeffries is a 16-year-old who has recently been sent to Pine Hills, a psychiatric unit for young offenders. It transpires that she has murdered a fellow-pupil, a popular girl named Tori Beaugrand. Her version of affairs is that while she and Tori were fighting, Tori disintegrated. No trace of her body has been found.
Most of the narrative following Alison’s incarceration is devoted to a detailed and minutely researched account of her treatment, with an authoritative listing of her medications and their effects. In the unit Alison discovers that for her whole life she has been a synesthete, she sees letters, words and emotions as colours. She can also tell by the taste of the words uttered if someone is lying to her — a valuable skill. Alison, however. is frightened by these unusual abilities and for this reason is less than forthcoming about them to her psychiatrist, Dr Konrad Minta.
A researcher named Dr Sebastian Faraday arrives at the unit to start a study of unusual skills. Alison decides to join the project, partly because she is bored and partly because Faraday’s voice tastes of chocolate. He is the one who explains to her how synesthesia manifests itself. Faraday and Alison form a close emotional bond, until a young patient who is himself interested in Alison reveals Faraday as a fraud, causing him to be dismissed from the unit. The real truth about Faraday is not at this stage revealed.
At this point the narrative takes off in directions reminiscent of The X-Files, accounting inter alia for the strange disappearance of Tori Beaugrand. In the mind of the reader the question of course arises: are these realities or just fantasies in the minds of Alison or Faraday or both?
Anderson has attempted to combine two very different textual components. The account of life in the psychiatric unit, narrated from Alison’s point of view, is painful and utterly convincing. In this respect Anderson has certainly done her homework. In the opinion of this reviewer the transition to fantasy is far less effectively managed. There is a jarring and unconvincing change of pace and intent. At the very end of the book comes an invitation from Alison to the reader, who is at liberty to believe or disbelieve any and every part of the story. The critical question is whether this invitation to skepticism is enough to justify a somewhat brutal narrative discontinuity, the operation that makes one book out of two disparate halves.