Worlds Where Senses Mix, Part Two

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Worlds Where Senses Mix, Part Two

Explorations of Synesthesia in Adult and Teen Fiction

The last few decades have seen a resurgence of interest in synesthesia, the neurological condition in which a stimulus of one sense involuntarily evokes another sense (such as hearing colors or tasting words). Not only has synesthesia become a well-developed area of research within neuroscience, but many new works of literature, along with new attention on certain older works, have broadened awareness of this fascinating phenomenon.

In Part One, I explored portrayals of synesthesia in children's fiction. Here, I illuminate adult and teen novels with synesthesia themes and/or synesthete characters. Unsurprisingly, a couple authors below were synesthetes, too.

Adult Novels:
Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong
Growing up in a small town in North Carolina in the 1970s and 1980s, Linda feels like an outsider in multiple ways, including her rare ability to taste words. She has lexical-gustatory synesthesia, but only discovers the name for her trait as an adult. She keeps her synesthesia a secret, except from her best friend Kelly, who, along with Linda's caring and eccentric great uncle Harper, provide loving support throughout her difficult upbringing. All dialogue includes Linda's tastes for words. (e.g. "Lindamint, please don't talkcornchips like a crazyheavycream persongarlicpowder.") While some readers may find this addition tiresome to read, it helps capture her synesthetic world. After moving away to Yale and then New York City, a tragedy pulls Linda home, where she uncovers secrets about her past and also opens up about the secret of her synesthesia. Along with synesthesia, this poetic novel explores Asian-American identity, immigrant heritage and troubled family relations.

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov's novel, the last of his works written in his native Russian, tells the story of Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, an impoverished
émigré poet living in Berlin in the 1920s after his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Exploring Fyodor's involvement in Russian literary circles and his dream of writing a book, it evokes the works of Pushkin, Gogol and other Russian authors. The novel also contains Fyodor's critical pseudo-biography of 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Chernyshevski. Fyodor is a synesthete who perceives letters and words as having color and texture, poetically described in a passage on page 74. Other novels by Nabokov that feature synesthete characters include Invitation to a Beheading, Ada, Pale Fire, Lolita and The Eye. Nabokov had grapheme-color synesthesia, which he describes in chapter two of his autobiography Speak, Memory.

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder by Sarah J. Harris
Narrated by 13-year-old Jasper, this coming-of-age and mystery novel slowly and colorfully uncovers the truth behind the murder of his neighbor Bee Larkham. Jasper is different than other boys because he is on the autistic spectrum, is face-blind and has multiple forms of synesthesia. He perceives words, numbers, days of the week, voices, emotions and sounds in color. When Bee screamed as she was murdered, he heard "ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles." His world a confused blur of colors, Jasper struggles to remember what happened prior and wonders whether he played a role in her murder. Through narration rich with synesthetic descriptions and humor, Jasper paints the story of their friendship over the past few months, and relevant details emerge.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
Written by a retired CIA officer after a 33-year career, this contemporary espionage thriller is full of suspense, danger, double existences and forbidden passion. Ex-ballerina Dominika, now a Russian spy trained in the art of seduction, is tasked with targeting Nate, a young CIA agent. However, an intense passion develops between them, ultimately threatening not only their lives but the future of two rival nations. Diagnosed as a synesthete as a young girl, Dominika perceives sound and emotions in color. For example, several of her superiors in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service are suffused with "the familiar yellow of treachery and betrayal." In contrast, Nate radiates deep purple: "warm and honest and safe." Dominika's prodigious memory and keen intuition, aided by her synesthesia, help her excel as a spy. Part of a trilogy, this story continues in Palace of Treason.

The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker
Three years ago, police officer Robbie Brownlaw was thrown out of a hotel window. He survived but acquired a kind of synesthesia where people's voices have colored shapes based on their emotion. For example, blue triangles indicate happiness, yellow rhomboids indicate love, small black ovals indicate aggression and red squares indicate deception. He mostly keeps his synesthesia a secret, although at one point he opens up to other synesthetes at a local Synesthesia Society meeting. Now a homicide detective for the city of San Diego, his ability to sense when someone's words don't match their feelings gives him an advantage. When former police-officer-turned-ethics-investigator Garrett Asplandh is found shot dead in his car, Brownlaw is called to investigate. In this suspenseful mystery, while Brownlaw persists in search of the truth, he also uncovers a widespread corruption scandal that threatens both the city and himself.

In Search of Lost Time (Volume 1: Swann's Way) by Marcel Proust
The first volume of the seven-volume classic lyrically explores themes of childhood, memory, love, the nature of art and participation in French society during the late 19th to early 20th century. With exquisite sensory detail, the narrator recaptures his childhood in Combray and Paris. He recollects family friend Swann's passion for courtesan Odette, along with his own love for Swann's daughter Gilberte. Although synesthesia is not an explicit theme in the novel, the narrator perceives words and music in color. Proust's rich sensory descriptions also include synesthetic metaphors and heavily feature involuntary memory, which has similarities to synesthesia. Some researchers suspect that Proust experienced synesthesia.

Teen Novels:
Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson
Alison has kept her unusual sensory abilities a secret ever since her mother warned her never to mention such crazy things again. Her life dramatically changes at age 16 when she wakes up in a mental institution and learns she has confessed to murdering her popular classmate, Tori, even though Tori's body has not been found. After Alison is transferred to a residential treatment center for disturbed teens, she meets a mysterious neuropsychologist who takes an interest in her. He learns about her uncommon sensory experiences: she hears and tastes colors; words, letters, and numbers have color, taste, texture and personality; she tastes lies, smells sounds and even hears music when she looks at stars. She learns she is not crazy but has a neurological condition called "synesthesia." While most of this teen novel reads as realistic fiction, it turns into science fiction during the last third as we uncover the truth behind Tori's disappearance. Poetic passages evoking Alison's synesthetic experience, along with an intriguing plot, make it an engaging read. The story continues in the sequel Quicksilver. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

One Is Not a Lonely Number by Evelyn Krieger
Thirteen-year-old Talia Schumacher, an only child in an Orthodox Jewish family, complains that her house is always full of guests on Shabbat. She desires more peace and quiet, but her parents highly value hospitality. Instead of frequent guests, she wishes she had a sibling. She wonders, "Is one a lonely number?" When one guest, Gabrielle, an eccentric and talkative ballet dancer, ends up staying for a while, Talia shares her frustration with friends. Yet she and her friends grow curious about Gabrielle's unspoken past. As Talia slowly uncovers Gabrielle's secret, and uncovers her own family's secrets, the two become closer. Along with themes of family and friendship, Talia's math talents and synesthesia weave throughout this Sydney Taylor Honor novel. For her, numbers are alive with color, personality and sound. (Eight, the color of blue sky, is her favorite number.) When Talia is in the company of numbers, she does not feel so lonely. Recommended for ages 10-15.

Further reading on synesthesia in literature and the arts:
— Rachel W.