Here is a book that centers on a person who has some form of mental debilitation that affects the way she perceives the world and reacts to it. This reviewer enjoys books such as this, since they seem to take a different angle on a supposedly average theme, giving it a new twist. A good example was the highly successful and brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in which the main character has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Everything is seen through his eyes, which makes for one very interesting novel. In turn, Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall also has a main character with a trait that makes her appear to be unlike the average person. Her affliction is that of Synesthesia - she sees colors associated with feelings, sounds, or other senses. In this novel, Morrall chose to downplay the affliction by not using it as a central theme but simply as a way of describing protagonist Kitty Wellington.
Kitty is a very complex character. The opening pages describe Kitty waiting at her usual place near the school, hoping to spot her child among the crowd of students - but something in her behavior is amiss. Her interactions with another mother don’t seem quite normal. There is something going on, but the reader does not yet know enough about Kitty to see it.
Astonishing Splashes of Colour is told from Kitty's point of view and written in the first person, so what happens to her and how she perceives her life and the world at first will seem normal to the reader. But the more we learn about Kitty, the more we notice that all is not right with her. She is noticing too many children named “Henry”. Too many people are wearing pink outfits. The reader might not catch this anomaly for quite a while, but as her behavior starts to take on rather strange twists, the little things start to add up.
One of the central themes is Kitty’s need to understand where she came from. Her lack of memories of her mother bothers her a lot, and she spends time trying to find out from her brothers what her mother was all about. No one is able to give her a direct answer, saying it’s been too long since their mother passed away. Kitty was only a toddler when their mother died, and now she is in her thirties. She has this gnawing feeling that she has some memories of her, but she can’t quite make out the images in her mind. She does remember a van and thinks she remembers some other things about her mother, too. But that is all she can come up with. Even her father, a professional artist who spends his days at home, refuses to explain to Kitty who her mother was and what she was like. This need to find the truth about her mother spurs her every day.
Part of Kitty’s other problem is her son Henry, who she waits for at school every day, stealthily hoping to catch a glimpse of him. In her need to find him, her mental state begins to fall apart as she sometimes finds herself going around in circles on the public bus, not knowing where she is headed or what she is doing. But other times she’s fairly lucid, spending her days writing book reviews for children’s books, living across the way from her husband (James seems to have his own set of neuroses, about which the reader will learn).
The bulk of the story deals with Kitty’s day-to-day life, and since it is all told in the first person, her own opinion is that she lives a normal life and that nothing she does is strange or out of the ordinary. She obviously does not see herself as any different from other people - at least not all the time - and that is the charm of this book. Believing what Kitty believes, at least in the beginning, is what helps throw the reader for a loop as things get stranger and stranger. We see things through her eyes, and we almost believe that what she sees is reality. It is somewhat similar to the protagonist in A Beautiful Mind, where the movie-goer comes to believe that what he sees is reality, but in truth is all the product of a schizophrenic mind. One begins to doubt after a while whether or not to believe anything that Kitty says or does as her mental state slowly deteriorates to the point where her husband begins to worry about her. When she begins to “find” babies and doesn’t even think twice about taking them with her, one knows that her life is now totally out of control.
Astonishing Splashes of Colour is an extraordinary adventure in reading. The reader is going to find the character of Kitty Wellington truly unforgettable; whether one will love her or hate her for who she is and what she does is up to the individual. I certainly found myself frustrated as I watched her life spiral out of control. But in the end, this book certainly deserves its 2004 Booker Prize nomination, and anyone who reads it will find themselves enriched the more for doing so. Highly recommended.