the color of lies
C.J. develops an intriguing plot based around synesthesia in her newest young adult novel. (Illustration by Francesca Mahaney, Pratt Institute)

‘The Color of Lies’: A Mystery Story Driven by Synesthesia

The young adult novel by C.J. Lyons is an enticing murder mystery about defining yourself outside of your family.

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the color of lies

The young adult novel by C.J. Lyons is an enticing murder mystery about defining yourself outside of your family.

Can you imagine being able to see sounds as colors? Or smell them? Well, that’s what Ella’s family can do in this intrigue-filled young adult novel, “The Color of Lies,” by C.J. Lyons. Members of her mom’s family all have a genetic synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a “rare experience where one property of a stimulus evokes a second experience not associated with the first.” Basically, two senses are triggered simultaneously when those with the condition come in contact with a single stimulus, rather than being triggered separately. Ella, in “The Color of Lies,” describes it as her “senses get[ting] tangled up, confusing what [she] hears with how [her] brain translates another person’s words.” Someone with synesthesia may see sounds as colors or associate certain numbers with specific colors. While synesthesia may be caused by drugs, sensory deprivation or brain damage, it is primarily caused by genetics.

This is why, in “The Color of Lies,” Ella’s family has it, passed through her mother’s line. Ella can see peoples’ words as colors, what she calls auras, which surround them as they speak. This ability has influenced her into becoming an artist; she is always painting, sketching and coloring in an attempt to capture they myriad of colors she sees every day.

Her grandmother, Helen, can feel sounds ­— certain sounds cause her to have migraines and get sick. This means she spends most of her life inside her home, completely in control of all sounds that enter her space. However, it also allows her to pitch her voice to evoke the exact emotion she wants, which makes her the perfect voice actress. Ella’s Uncle Joe can taste words, which can often be unpleasant.

When Ella was very young, her parents were killed in a fire while on vacation and she was raised by her grandmother, uncle and godfather, Darrin, in Cambria City, Pennsylvania. Her entire life, she believed and was told that her parents’ deaths were an accident and that she was at home when it happened, not with them — that is, until Alec, the boy whose aura she can’t see, tells her otherwise.

As she grew up, her guardians pushed her to go to school for accounting, so she could work for her father’s insurance company, Cleary and Sons. Anytime she disagreed or expressed doubts, they pulled the “this is what your parents would want” card. Ella hates it when they say this, but also continues to use it as an excuse to hide behind.

Although she would rather go to art school, she always accepted Cleary and Sons as her inevitable fate, convincing herself that she could never leave her uncle and grandmother to fend for themselves — that they would crumble without her due to their synesthesia.

Alec is the son of a cop from the coast of South Carolina. His father investigated the deaths of Ella’s parents and Ella stayed with his family until her guardians were found. Since that moment, he always sought the truth, eventually becoming a budding true crime journalist. A project with a famous true crime journalist, Dr. Winston, is what brings Alec to Cambria City. Winston plans on selling the story, but Alec just wants to uncover the truth and particularly, the why behind the murder of Ella’s parents.

When Alec arrives and tells Ella the truth about her parents’ deaths, she begins to question her family and her past. She helps him, after arguing with him a couple of times, and they begin to unearth the facts. However, someone doesn’t want them to find out the truth and makes an attempt on Ella’s life by setting fire to her studio while she was in it.

In the hospital, Ella’s family has Alec arrested for stalking and, as a result of the suspicious fire, attempted murder as well. They also consider committing Ella to a psych ward for potentially causing the fire herself.

As they continue to investigate, Alec and Ella define themselves further from their families. Alec calls his father, and instead of scolding Alec or insisting on coming to Cambria City, he gives Alec advice and then leaves him alone. Alec is left to rely on his own instincts and intellect, and he realizes that he is capable of solving the issue on his own.

Ella continues to investigate without telling her family. She understands that this is something she has to do alone — that her family would try to protect and hide her from the truth. She also realizes that her synesthesia may not always be reliable, that it is not a lie detector; it couldn’t always reveal the truth. The reason she could not always see the truth was because of her perception of it, not through the fault of her condition.

Alec and Ella come to the same conclusion — that the murderer was someone who wanted full access and control of the family company and was pulling a long con to achieve that. With the help of friends, they confront the murderer and win — Ella maintains ownership of her father’s company and is free to do what she wants with her life. She shakes the ghosts of her parents, understanding they would want her to live her life the way she wanted.

Alec finds his truth and purpose. He no longer wants to be a true crime journalist, at least not the same kind as Dr. Winston; he does not want to sell other people’s stories for profit. He wants to uncover the truth of unjust deeds and warn others about those committing them. This career change will take him to New York, where Ella also wants to go for art school.

“The Color of Lies” is a suspenseful, dramatic novel of mystery and betrayal, which kept me on my toes the entire read. Colorful characters and a unique plot drive this story to the bitter end, making it a wonderful must-read.

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