The Taste of Blue Light: An original take on trauma and memory loss

The restorative power of art gets a colourful makeover in this debut YA novel

Lux Langley, the teenage protagonist of The Taste of Blue Light, who thinks, feels and even dreams in colour
The Taste of Blue Light
Author: Lydia Ruffles
ISBN-13: ISBN 978-1444936735
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books
Guideline Price: £12.99

Synaesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic experience in another sense or part of the body. This “union of the senses” often involves an individual’s ability to perceive colour in certain letters, numbers or feelings. So it is with Lux Langley, the teenage protagonist of The Taste of Blue Light, who thinks, feels and even dreams in colour.

Following a mysterious trauma that happens over the summer before her final year at school, Lux suffers killer migraines and bursts of intense rage during the day. On the rare occasions she's able to sleep, she has lurid nightmares and often wakes up screaming. Readers will wonder why Lux has been allowed back to her liberal arts school Richdeane in such poor mental health, or why her parents leave her in England and fly off to Singapore. These questions draw us into Lydia Ruffles's YA debut, which offers an original take on the subjects of trauma, memory loss and the restorative power of art.

There is much to recommend in The Taste of Blue Light, not least the sharp voice of almost 18-year-old Lux who succinctly summarises many of the foibles of her generation. An opening scene doesn’t hold back in hedonism. Lux and her well-sketched best friends Olivia and Mei make the most of their last summer before adulthood. Ecstasy, fireworks and a highly unsentimental shedding of virginity pile on the action, but the details are what make the scenes sing.

As she shirks “the gaze of those girls who feel pretty when they’re hungry”, Lux under the influence is able to live in the moment: “For a minute, I forgot to dance like people were watching.”

Lydia Ruffles is good at highlighting how liberal is sometimes code for another type of rigidity

The people at the party are the kind of cool, arty kids who “wake and bake” and drink “Dirty Coconuts, a cocktail of vodka and coconut water”.

We get to meet the cool kids in full force when Lux goes back to Richdeane, the kind of alternative educational establishment that will have readers longing for theorems and trigonometry and the intricacies of the modh coinníollach.

“A pioneering, open residential school model” that has group talk therapy, classes on media and discussion coaching, a low GI diet for its students and the motto, “To art and we let go”, it is certainly original terrain but at times feels heavy-handed and a bit ridiculous in its alternativeness.

Liberal as code for rigidity

Ruffles is good at highlighting how liberal is sometimes code for another type of rigidity: the strict diet, the so-called non-uniform of black clothing, the way students are expected to mingle with rich donors, to nod and smile, “the Richdeane factory setting,” if they don’t understand the conversations.

The novel is inspired by Ruffles’s own health and creative experiences. A graduate of the Faber Academy, the English author wrote the book “between MRIs and migraines” and was taken on by the same agent who discovered SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep.

The subject of memory loss is central to both novels and Ruffles proves herself adept at dangling clues and fragments around Lux’s trauma. Was it to do with drugs? Was it another party? Why does Lux remember “the girl with the red hair, the smell of tequila on my skin when I woke up in hospital”?

With the party girl aspect and a young female protagonist suffering from trauma, there are echoes of Louise O'Neill's Asking For It, though Ruffles's writing lacks the cohesiveness and control of O'Neill. The Taste of Blue Light is written in a lyrical style that can be overwrought. "School will be done soon," Lux says to her on-off boyfriend Cal. "Our orbit soon is almost over."

Lux's voice engages readers on issues that are timely, absorbing and perceptively related

Later, in a line that is straight out of Dawson’s Creek, she tells another lover: “Not everything is a metaphor, you know.” Elsewhere, there’s a self-knowing tone to Lux’s views on her school and situation: “Where we precious, or do I mean precocious, Artists sleep.”

For the most part, however, Lux’s voice engages readers on issues that are timely, absorbing and perceptively related. Ruffles is particularly sharp on how we communicate with each other: “Usually if you make a joke out of something, you can avoid revealing any more. People will be too busy laughing or thinking you’re a show-off.”

Lux’s confusion about her mental state and the seemingly frustrating lack of adult assistance is translated by the narrator in the only way she knows how – through her senses. From sleeping on a cold balcony, to noticing “the sabre of sunlight” in the Richdeane grounds, to vivid depictions of the colour of blood, Lux uses her senses to feel her way out of trauma. When the horror is eventually revealed, it is no wonder she longs for sensory deprivation: “Some days I would give up every flavour in my body to be just vanilla.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts