Cecilia Ahern gets better and better. I loved Freckles, which I’d tried despite hating her early books (especially P.S. I Love You, a book I hated with such a passion I wanted to throw it on the fire). This was such a profound book and touched me deeply. It was no stretch to believe in our heroine Alice and her ability to see people’s emotions as colours. I could also empathise with how difficult it is for her to cope with. I identified with our heroine so strongly, both physically and mentally. To explain, ever since I was diagnosed with MS I get strange crossed wires with my senses, especially around sight and taste. If I see a beautiful display of daffodils, I suddenly taste delightfully sour sherbet lemons and my mouth waters to the point of pain. Every so often, if I’m anxious, the smell and taste of Mum’s cottage pie drifts in and I can actually experience it as a physical sense. It’s obviously something that’s comforting to me. These experiences are as vivid and real as if what I smell and taste is directly in front of me. I think this ability to make strange connections and perceive senses in different ways also stretches to other people’s emotions. There are times when someone walks into a room when I can feel their emotion as strongly as my own. It goes beyond a knowledge of body language, I can actually feel their anger, confusion, grief or joy in my own body. As you can imagine this has been incredibly useful in my counselling work, but it’s also completely exhausting, especially when a lot of people are around.
Alice is from a dysfunctional family and we’re thrown directly into their daily life, where elder brother Hugh and Alice are desperately trying to keep their family together. Alice has to get her younger brother up and ready for school, trying so hard not to wake their mother Lily and incur her wrath. Sometimes when they return Lily still hasn’t surfaced, but if she has it’s still best to remain under the radar because she’s usually irritable, lethargic and unable to connect with her children. Other days they may come home and find Lily up, dressed and full of energy. She may be frantically cooking pancakes, multiples of them, while working out the overheads of running a mobile pancake van. This tendency to flit between extremes is spoken of in whispers between the children, quick warnings to brace themselves or expect the worst. One day after school Alice comes home and finds Lily still in bed, even worse there’s an eerie blue mist emanating from the bed and filling the room. Alice fears the worst and rings an ambulance, then runs into her room and hides. It’s only when she hears her mother screaming and swearing at the paramedics that she realises Lily is alive. What’s baffling to Alice is that no one else seems to see the blue colour emanating from her mum.
I absolutely loved the way the author described Alice’s adjustment to having this vivid colour display wherever there are people. In the school environment it’s a nightmare for her, everyone gives off a different mix of colours, moving and flashing at her eyes until she starts to suffer migraines. Her insistence on wearing sunglasses to school brings her to the teacher’s attention and they think she’s playing up and being insolent. Hugh knows though and seems to realise instinctively that it’s part of Alice’s hyper-sensitivity; the colours are simply a physical manifestation of her ability to feel other’s emotions. Alice is what might be called an empath, she has a highly tuned radar for the moods and sensitivities of people in close proximity to her. As a child she sees the negatives in her situation, mainly because she doesn’t have autonomy. If Lily is blue, red, or at worst black, there’s nothing Alice can do to avoid it. She can get out of the house if Lily hasn’t seen her, but that’s not always possible, leaving her at the mercy of her mother’s mood. The author brilliantly conveys Alice’s feeling of powerlessness and the fear she feels as she comes home, unsure of what will happen when she goes inside. Scenes where Lily is at her most angry, in one scene towards Hugh and his plans to go to university, the furious and messy black colour Alice can see is really menacing. Yet they go on hiding Lily’s condition, because the alternative is social services and possibly having to split the family up.
I found myself really worried for Alice, because in the swirl of colours and emotions that assail her every hour of the day how can she ever find peace? Between that and the terrible situation at home there’s never a moment for her to develop herself. We only know who Alice is in relation to everyone around her. She becomes subsumed by their emotions, needs and wants to such an extent that her own don’t get a look in. I was devastated by her choice to stay at home after leaving school with Lily and her little brother, who’s rapidly becoming a violent criminal. His antagonism towards Alice comes from being the baby of the family and not yet being able to view his mum objectively. Lily has the ability to threaten and manipulate quietly, deliberately under the radar of her youngest son. So he only sees Alice’s attempts to stick up for herself, which cause such a furore that in his eyes Alice is the problem. I was worried that she would never be able to leave home, follow a career or get married and have her own children. She has become so emotionally literate though and still worries about her family members, even the ones who treat her badly. I was worried she wouldn’t be able to discover her authentic self and develop the life she wants without leaving. One catalyst for change is the man she happens to see on his way to work. He stands out instantly because he isn’t giving off any colours and Alice is so fascinated that she follows him. Andy is a strange mix of both restful and mysterious. Alice has never had to work so hard on getting to know someone, it’s both scary and intoxicating to peel back the layers. However, when they’re just ‘being’ – taking a walk or watching a movie – Alice can relax fully, because she can’t sense all the colours lurking underneath the surface. I was intrigued to know whether this could mean he is Alice’s ‘one’, but also whether there were other colourless people in the world.
From the perspective of this reader with a disability it was so interesting to watch someone negotiate the world with a difference like this. I’d probably call it an ability rather than a disability. I loved discovering whether Alice grows to cope with her colours or moves beyond the difficulties of her childhood. As we moved through her life I forgot she wasn’t a real person, that’s how well-rounded a character she is. I felt like I was having a conversation with one of my counselling clients because of the depth the author goes to and the richness of her inner world. It was a surprise to see how her age and experience changes her relationships with other characters. I found the final sections of the novel, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I felt privileged to have moved through life with this extraordinary woman.
Meet the Author
After completing a degree in Journalism and Media Communications, Cecelia wrote her first novel at 21 years old. Her debut novel, PS I Love You was published in January 2004, and was followed by Where Rainbows End (aka Love, Rosie) in November 2004. Both novels were adapted to films; PS I Love You starred Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, and Love, Rosie starred Lily Collins and Sam Claflin.
Cecelia has published a novel every year since then and to date has published 15 novels; If You Could See Me Now, A Place Called Here, Thanks for the Memories, The Gift, The Book of Tomorrow, The Time of My Life, One Hundred Names, How To Fall in Love, The Year I Met You, The Marble Collector, Flawed, Perfect and Lyrebird. To date, Cecelia’s books have sold 25 million copies internationally, are published in over 40 countries, in 30 languages.
Cecilia Ahern writes on her Amazon author page that the thread linking her work is in capturing that transitional period in people’s lives. She is drawn to writing about loss, to characters that have fallen and who feel powerless in their lives. She is “fascinated and inspired by the human spirit, by the fact that no matter how hopeless we feel and how dark life can be, we do have the courage, strength and bravery to push through our challenging moments. We are the greatest warriors in our own stories. I like to catch my characters as they fall, and bring them from low to high. My characters push through and as a result evolve, become stronger and better equipped for the next challenge that life brings. I like to mix dark with light, sadness with humour, always keeping a balance, and always bringing the story to a place of hope.”