I love me an unreliable narrator, particularly when you can’t identify what kind of unreliable he or she is. Is he sincere in his beliefs but crazy? Is she a pathological liar? Is he a con man intentionally deceiving his audience? Is she just out of the loop, a narrator who thinks she knows what’s going on but is actually being tricked by others? I stayed up until almost midnight to finish this in a marathon reading session, and I found it an incredibly addictive genre-bender.
Alison is set up as suspect right from the start, from the moment she wakes up in a sterile hospital room, arms covered in self-inflicted scratches, missing a bunch of memories and pressed with the uncomfortable feeling that something’s gone terribly wrong. The fact that she’s been involuntarily committed after a psychotic episode doesn’t surprise her as much as it should, and the policeman who escorts her, hand-cuffed, to her new home in a private psych ward for teenagers seems to think she knows something about a classmate’s disappearance. The missing girl, Tori, had an argument with Alison just before disappearing, and it was no secret they disliked each other – but did Alison do something to warrant this suspicious treatment? And do her family and friends and the doctors at the institution really want to help her, or do they all have ulterior motives?
Alison has always worried about being a little crazy because of the different way her mind perceives things: letters, numbers, names, and sounds have colors and emotions and even tastes associated with them. Telling lies taste bad and make her sick; hopefulness in someone’s voice tastes like powdered sugar; the ringing sound dishes make while washing make stars burst before her eyes; people’s names hold clues to their personality, based on the qualities of the letters. It gives her narrative an unusual sensory rich quality without being overdone or unreadable, and Anderson does an amazing job using language to convey how Alison experiences the world. Plus, being so firmly in Alison’s head makes it hard to doubt her – everything is colored by her odd perceptions, and she seems so sincere and honest – but also impossible to fully believe she knows the true story, either.
She’s been taught by her mother to keep her unusual perceptions a secret, to be ashamed of it, but it’s a real condition (and I don’t feel this is a spoiler, because even the publisher’s marketing mentions it) called synesthesia
. Because I already knew this, I was predisposed to think that Alison wasn’t really crazy – she just didn’t know that there was a real explanation. But then, the more she starts remembering the events of the night Tori disappeared, the more unstable she seems, especially when she flat out admits to herself that she disintegrated Tori with the power of her mind.
Right at that moment, this book took me in wholly, because that’s when I had to admit I had no idea where Anderson was going to take this story. The best part of reading this book is trying to figure out, as Alison sorts through her memories and gets drawn into the lives of the other patients in the ward, what really happened that night. Did Alison kill Tori? And did Tori disintegrate, or is Alison just crazy? If she did disintegrate, what the hell does that mean? There is honestly no way to predict, for sure, where the story is going to go without spoilers. This is coming from someone who considers it her particular superpower to make those predictions and be right 98% of the time (what, even someone with superpowers can’t be right ALL of the time).
The book starts off as a realistic story taking place in a mental institution, but evidence stacks up, in a subtle way, that something supernatural is going on; the problem is, since we’re reading from Alison’s point of view, there’s no way of knowing if her gathering evidence that points to something otherworldly is legit. There are a lot of promising clues that turn out to be red herrings, and little moments that turn out in retrospect to be clues, while characters you like turn out to be skeevy and vice versa. The later piece of the novel, where the slow-building tension pays off and turns to straight-up action, is surprising and will put off some readers and make others squee with delight (I am one of the second ones). I did feel the transition was a little abrupt, but maybe that’s because it doesn’t get a lot of expansion compared with the rest of the story, which takes up more than half, and because it moves super fast in comparison; I think these later developments will be more focused in on book two.
I feel like I can’t discuss the plot anymore without ruining it, even though I’m leaving out a major character/love interest. Of course just saying there’s a major tonal shift is sort of setting up new readers for the experience, but that can be a good thing, too. Still, this genre-bender wouldn’t be nearly so successful without Anderson’s great writing. There are so many quotable descriptive moments, like Alison’s descriptions that are spot-on and often hilarious (for example, she introduces Tori by saying, “And where the new girl had curves, I had angles and despair”; and she introduces another person by describing his clothes as “exciting shades like Old Filing Cabinet and Dryer Lint”).
Another plus is the ensemble cast – while this book is really all about Alison for most of the time, her fellow patients, her mother and father, the doctors and nurses and orderlies, and a certain potential love interest, all have enough depth to hint that there’s more going on with them than Alison realizes. They are believable background players, and when a few of them move into the spotlight, they become as complex as Alison.
Sheer curiosity kept me turning the pages -- I had to know what really happened to Alison and Tori -- but the writing made it worthwhile, and I admire Anderson for really going there with the ending. (view spoiler)[ It's not every day that an author takes a fairly realistic story and turns it into a balls-out alien conspiracy. (hide spoiler)]
Can't wait to read the next one!