Ultraviolet by R. J. Anderson

It’s almost impossible to discuss Ultraviolet by R. J. Anderson in any meaningful way without spoiling it a little, so here is the requisite warning: There are mild spoilers ahead. I won’t give away details of major plot points, but I will discuss in a very general way the twist that occurs near the end.
Alison has synesthesia. What this means is that she experiences each of her five senses using a different sense. For example, she can taste words and see sounds. It’s bizarre, but the best part about it is this condition/superpower actually exists.
Too bad for Alison that no one recognizes she has it. Instead, Alison thinks she’s simply crazy. This feeling is compounded when she witnesses a classmate – a mean girl – disintegrate in front of her. Alison thinks she did it and confesses to it. No one would have believed her, except the mean girl can’t be found anywhere, and there’s evidence that Alison did something to her. So Alison is promptly taken to a mental institution, where the cops continue to investigate the alleged crime, Alison tries to piece together what actually happened, and the reader tries to figure out if Alison is insane or not. Her synesthesia is finally brought to light by a visiting doctor named Faraday, and Alison starts to believe that she may be able to put her life back together.
And then, a few chapters before the book ends, it takes a serious turn into science fiction territory. I’ll be honest and admit that I only picked up Ultraviolet because I knew it would eventually reveal itself as science fiction. I’m not really into psychological dramas, and stories about mental institutions mostly depress me. Therefore I welcomed the twist with open arms. I thought it was clever, made sense in context, and was pretty fascinating.
I know some others don’t agree. Lots of readers feel cheated or duped, thinking they were reading a realistic novel only to find out – and right near the end, no less – that it is most definitely not. I can relate. I have a problem with books that do the opposite – make me think I’m reading a science fiction or fantasy novel and then reveal at the end that there’s a logical explanation for everything. It rankles most when there’s not much set-up for it, or the set-up is so obscure that it might as well not be there. While Anderson’s science fiction explanation makes sense here, there really isn’t much set-up for it, so I sympathize with readers who were irritated. But I love science fiction, so for me, the twist was terrific.
Of course, readers who enjoy genre-bending novels – and there are plenty of them out there – won’t have a problem with Anderson’s twist. It’s just good to know ahead of time that this book is genre-bending before recommending it to someone.
Overall, Ultraviolet was a solid and enjoyable read. Alison’s synesthesia made it unique and will probably be a great draw for readers. There just aren’t that many books that talk about this very real condition, and the condition itself is fascinating. Turning Alison’s story into science fiction doesn’t change the fact that synesthesia truly exists in our own real world.
That said, the book definitely set off my skeeze alarm. Faraday is the romantic interest, and that whole relationship is just… wrong… although I definitely see how he will appeal to certain teenage girls. But he’s old enough to have gotten an advanced degree, and he’s in a position of power over Alison, and I really didn’t like it. Anderson tries to make it sweet, but it just made me feel kind of icky.
Copy borrowed from my local library. Ultraviolet is available now.
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