Sarah J. Harris explains synaesthesia, face-blindness and the inspiration behind her new novel The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder.
I first came across synaesthesia nine years ago, during my work as an education journalist – and have been fascinated ever since.
Researchers at Edinburgh University had carried out the first ever study into the prevalence in childhood of the condition that causes a ‘merging of the senses’.
Synaesthetes experience together two or more of the five senses that are usually experienced separately. Some people might, for example, experience colour when they hear sounds – the purple streaks of a closing window – while others may taste words, enjoying strawberries and cream with a greeting of ‘hello’.
The study estimated that the average UK primary school has at least two pupils who experience colour when they hear or see words. But researchers warned of a lack of awareness in schools – a finding that probably still resonates today.
The findings stayed with me long after my synaesthesia feature was published in a national newspaper in 2008. I often wondered what it must be like for a child when people struggle to understand their daily experiences – or simply don’t want to know.
Over the years, I’ve kept cuttings from newspapers and magazines about synaesthesia and also avidly read up on another condition called prosopagnosia or face blindness. The inability to recognise familiar faces affects about one in 50 people and can be particularly stressful – and dangerous – for children. Among the pupils in a corridor, who is their real friend and who is their tormentor? Outside the school gates, who is their mum? Who is a total stranger?
I wanted to write a novel that combined the joy of seeing a world through colour, with the dangers of never really knowing who to trust.
The character of Jasper eventually came to me in a dream – a harrowing image of a young boy tearing across a suburban street at night, terror etched on his face.
When I woke up, I realised a particular colour could have traumatised the boy. Perhaps he had face blindness and identified people by the colour of their voices. What if the voice colour of someone he knew had transformed to a horrifying shade as they screamed? What if he had seen the colour of – ice blue crystals with glittery edges and jagged, silver icicles – to learn how Jasper would also eventually attempt the horrifying task.
The extensive research was crucial – and I have to say, thoroughly enjoyable. I still paint with my children and watch the parakeets in my back garden. I remain a member of a worldwide online synaesthesia forum and read daily updates because I’m not quite ready to let go of Jasper’s intriguing world.
I hope you will want to experience it too.
“Whatever happens, don’t tell anyone what you did to Bee Larkham…”
Jasper is not ordinary.
In fact, he would say he is extraordinary…
Synaesthesia paints the sounds of his world in a kaleidoscope of colours that no one else can see. But on Friday, he discovered a new colour – the colour of murder.
He’s sure something has happened to his neighbour, Bee Larkham, but no-one else seems to be taking it as seriously as they should be. The knife and the screams are all mixed up in his head and he’s scared that he can’t quite remember anything clearly.
But where is Bee? Why hasn’t she come home yet? Jasper must uncover the truth about that night – including his own role in what happened…
The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder is published on 3rd May 2018.