‘Your child is missing – presumed dead.’
Hours after receiving the phone call that every mother dreads, Alida Salter flies to India to search for her backpacker daughter. The discovery of disturbing collages in Mia’s hotel makes Alida suspect a connection between the disaster which fractured their relationship thirteen years ago, and Mia’s recent, mysterious disappearance.
Mia is no ordinary girl. Growing up with the sensory condition synaesthesia – where she sees the world in a kaleidoscope of shapes, colours and smells – she has gone through life with the vivid imagination of an artist, but for years she has shouldered an overwhelming burden of guilt.
It has been a difficult relationship, but now comes the toughest test of all… Alida must find the courage to trust her maternal instincts, or lose her daughter forever.
Breathing in Colour, by Clare Jay. March 2009
Published by Piatkus, Little, Brown Book Group £7.99
On this page:
“An intriguing mystery from a talented new author.” Elle
“fraught with tension… a unique literary experience.” Businessworld
“A compelling and intense portrayal of love and loss. Beautifully written, it captures the intimate emotions of its characters’ lives, and its vivid descriptions of India had me hot and sweaty just reading about it. Jay reawakens the senses with which we perceive the world around us and makes us look at it with fresh eyes. This is a poignant and at times heart-breaking debut novel.” Kate Furnivall, author of The Russian Concubine
“One of the most poignant, humane, original and exquisitely written first novels I’ve come across.” Jan Fortune-Wood, editor of Cinnamon Press
“Clare Jay’s prose is compelling and her debut is impressive. She is a remarkable new talent. Breathing In Colour is lyrical and emotive, it draws the reader into the narrative with urgency. Expect big things from Clare Jay in the future.” Cherie Federico, Editor of Aesthetica
“mesmerising… India is revealed in all its sensory exuberance, made even more intense by the way Mia experiences the world” The Western Morning News
“Clare Jay’s debut novel grips you from the opening scene… Leading readers on more than a journey to India, this emotional novel is about the complex mother and daughter relationship… India’s colours, people and exotic presence presides throughout. This work of fiction is one to take for long journeys and will have readers (females in particular) racing to reach the final outcome.” Hannah James, Editor of Real Travel Magazine
“A powerful first novel.” Lighter Life
“Breathing in Colour takes us on a gripping journey through internal and external landscapes alike, sustaining our interest both through the mysteries of the plot and the gorgeous sensuality of the language.” Dr. Harriet Tarlo, poet and Member of the Editorial Board for New Writing.
“A striking, vivid and poignant debut novel.” Choice
“Reading Breathing in Colour is like stepping into one of the lucid dreams used by the author to explore the difficult relationship between a mother and her child. The Indian backdrop is rich, though richer still is the sensory kaleidoscope into which we are invited” Clio Gray, historical crime novelist and Scotsman/Orange award-winner.
“Like many India-set novels, it’s richly descriptive, but it’s even more of a sensory feast because Mia has synaesthesia… to her, the word ‘Mum’ literally tastes like warm vanilla custard.” Easy Living
“heart-wrenching… a beautifully told story that may have you grabbing for a box of tissues, so keep them handy. ” Lovereading
“Breathing in Colour is as evocative as the title suggests – this is a colourful and imaginative story that draws the reader into a world where dreams, reality and the senses intermingle; an adventure into the lives of mother and daughter that traverses the emotional minefield of their past.” Louisa Adjoa Parker, poet and Black History writer.
“colourful and moving debut novel.” Hot Stars (OK Magazine supplement)
“Imaginative and beautifully written.” The Sun
“utterly gripping – the unravelling of the double mystery of the daughter’s disappearance and the terrible event that ruptured the family years earlier kept me guessing and enthralled right through to the hard-won, joyous ending. It’s a brilliant study of grief and of recovery too. The exploration of synaesthesia is awesomely written, giving the reader a glimpse into what that kind of intoxicating perception would be like… original and enlightening as well as the most sumptuous reading experience.” Dr. Linda Anderson, award-winning novelist and National Teaching Fellow.
“Clare Jay’s bold, vivid and poignant debut novel is a sensory and emotional rollercoaster that grips you from page one… Enchanting, gripping and with a style uniquely her own, Clare Jay is one to watch.” Work Matters (NHS magazine)
“compelling… the gut-wrenching emotions of Alida and Mia are so realistic and aroused such sympathy that I found myself carrying the book around with me so that I could snatch moments to read snippets of it throughout the day.” The Bookbag
Publisher Arena have won the Dutch translation rights for Breathing in Colour at auction. My literary agent, Jane Conway-Gordon, looks after all my translation rights as well as US and Canadian rights, and made this deal through the Intercontinental Literary Agency (ILA) in London.
Piatkus produced 600 pre-publication proof copies of the novel and made them look beautiful, reflecting the henna patterns and border design used on the final cover. Receiving my proof copy was an exciting moment as this was the first time I’d seen my story in book form. Opening it and seeing thousands of words I know by heart felt just amazing – indescribable!
I was in India again, my backpack heavy with books on yoga and stories by Indian women. I wanted to write more than just my usual travel diaries: I wanted to put some of my experiences of India into a novel. My mind was crowded with memories of being kissed by the wet snout of a temple elephant, being served beer in teapots on Varkala beach because they had no licence, and being asked to pose for a photo with a group of Indian women who were thrilled when I agreed to wear on my forehead the bindi that one of them fished out of her purse.
We’d had funny moments, like the time we saw bicycles stacked up at the side of a road and thought we’d found a bike hire shop. We ‘hired’ two bikes off a guy who spoke no English and rode off jubilantly, only to realise further down the road, when my back wheel fell off, that in fact it was a bike scrap yard and we were now the owners of two dead bikes. And I remembered watching our fabulous Indian yoga teacher demonstrating the impressive art of stomach-rolling. He had a mental block with that vital word in yoga – harmony. Taking his yoga class, we’d be struggling not to giggle when solemnly instructed to ‘feel the symphony’. There were so many images in my head, of temples, people, landscapes. All I needed was a plotline into and through which my love of India could be woven.
It seemed that whenever my boyfriend and I were sitting in backpacker cafés waiting hungrily for masala dosas or sipping banana lassis, my gaze would fall on a ‘missing’ poster. I was struck by the faces of these disappeared travellers, their blithe smiles into the camera: the ones who had never made it home. A friend of my brother’s had vanished in the Australian rainforest many years before and was not found again. I started to imagine what could have happened to these lost people – had they been killed in a bus-over-cliff accident, their bodies left to decompose in river gorges and never identified? Had they decided to duck out of their previous existence and purposefully vanish, or had they been drugged, murdered?
And then I thought – how must it feel to be the bereft relative who flies over here to look for their child? How must it feel to not know what has happened to them? Imagine being out in this heat and tumult, sticking up posters with your child’s face on them, wondering with every passing moment if you’ll ever see her again. I saw the mother in my mind, Alida, her eyes wild with fatigue and despair, her curly hair lank in the heat. Poor Alida! And where was Mia? Was she dead or alive? The questions multiplied, the story incubated… and I included a plot synopsis with my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing with the University of Leeds. I was accepted onto the course in 2003, and that’s when the colourful lucid-dreaming-creative-writing years began.
A PhD novel
What could be more fun than writing a novel and waltzing off with a PhD at the end of it? Well, the thing is, it’s not ‘just’ a novel… my PhD involved practice-based research into the role of lucid dreaming in the creative writing process, with primary data gathered from lucid dreaming fiction writers combined with observations about my own writing process, in the form of a critical commentary and the novel, Breathing in Colour.
People who have done doctorates which combine a novel with an academic thesis know that it sometimes feels like doing two PhDs. I worked about 40 hours a week for three years but I did have a huge amount of fun. I drew on my own lucid dreams at every step of the creative process, spoke about my research at international conferences, wrote academic papers, created lucid dream collages, won an IASD student award for originality in the field of dreamwork, and met many wonderful people from the dream studies community. I also developed the Dreaming into Writing workshops which are talked about on the Writer’s Trance page on this site.
The UK Synaesthesia Association describes synaesthesia as a “union of the senses”. This is not an illness, but a sensory condition in which textures might be tasted on the tongue, or musical notes experienced as colours. In synaesthesia, the five senses, which most people experience as separate, are mingled in almost any combination, so that one sensation involuntarily conjures up others. Estimates as to how many people have synaesthesia vary. Leading synaesthesia researcher Dr Richard Cytowic has claimed that one in 25,000 people have the condition, but that some type of synaesthetic experience occurs in as many as one in twenty-three people.
I’m not a synaesthete, but certain shades of purple or yellow can stop me in my tracks, filling my mind completely with their richness, and I’ve always dreamed in an array of colours so dazzling that they seem to reach out and touch me. The idea of writing about a character with synaesthesia came to me when I had a lucid dream in which I experienced a fistful of sand as having an orange texture and taste: on a strong sensory level, the sand was orange before I’d even looked at it. This made me consider the different ways in which the world is perceived through the senses – some people seem to see brighter colours, while others have a sharper sense of smell. I started to ask myself questions: To what extent might perceptual differences transform an individual’s experience of the world? And just how different might the world then be?
When I came across Cytowic’s online articles on synaesthesia, I knew this would be a wonderful condition to work with. Synaesthesia blends perfectly with the imaginative world of writing; it forced me to experiment with my own sense perceptions and the Mia narratives became the most fun parts of the book to write. I would close my eyes and wait for a mingled sense perception to emerge, becoming Mia for that short space of time, entering her remarkable perceptual world as much as I was able to.
Synaesthesia can be very mild to very strong – some people barely notice it until the chance comment of another person makes them realise that not everyone has a coloured alphabet, for example. Mia’s synaesthesia needed to be very strong, and this is how it is portrayed in the novel. I also set no limits on what could trigger the synaesthetic response: some synaesthetes predominantly experience coloured hearing, while shape-tasting is more rare. In common with some synaesthetes, Mia experiences any combination of sensory fusion.
Synaesthetes have widely differing perceptions, and it seemed to me as I read up on this that almost anything goes: the colour green could be experienced by one synaesthete as having a lemon sherbet taste, while in another, it might produce a feeling like raindrops hitting the skin. As a writer, this gave me a lovely freedom to explore what my own synaesthesia might be like, if I had the condition myself. As a non-synaesthete, writing from the point of view of a synaesthete is like writing poetry: the senses extend out in all directions as an attempt is made to grasp the reality of what is experienced.
In many ways, synaesthesia seems to provide a more vivid experience of the world, and my research tells me that most synaesthetes wouldn’t wish to be without it. For those interested in learning more about this fascinating condition, the UK Synaesthesia Association’s website has further information: www.uksynaesthesia.com
This text appears as my Author Note in Breathing in Colour, Piatkus 2009.
Breathing in Colour, copyright Clare Jay 2009
Excerpt from Chapter One
The night she learned of her daughter’s disappearance, Alida’s head was full of the past.
Sleep had eluded her for hours, and although she was still in her bedroom, she was sitting on the swivel chair at her desk in front of the bay window, her hair falling forward in loose, dark spirals as she looked at the object she held in her hands. Her slender knees were drawn up to her chest and she had pulled on her oldest cardigan, which was made of raw silk fibres knotted together in shades of red. Years ago, she had slipped it on to keep her warm while she breastfed. Wearing it reminded her of simpler times. The bedroom was filled with amber shadows from the bedside lamp, and through a crack in the curtains the sky was beginning to lighten. Three floors down, the occasional car rumbled past as London began to stir. In her hands, Alida was holding a four-inch long treasure chest originally made of cardboard, but unidentifiable as such due to the profusion of sequins glued to every surface; gold, silver, green, so that even after more than a dozen years, the little box shimmered. Mia had presented her with it one Mother’s day before she turned six, before their world changed beyond recognition.
Alida recalled Mia’s stripy scarf trailing to the ground, her smile almost too wide for her small face as she ran towards her across the playground and thrust the treasure chest – still sticky in places – into her hands. “These are the stars we catch before I go to sleep,” Mia had announced, her eyes ablaze with pride as she pointed at the sequins. “When the pink ones sparkle, they fizz in my mouth like sherbet.”
Her talented, multi-sensory daughter. Whenever a sequin dropped off, Alida would stick it back on with superglue so that now the chest had a smooth, tight carapace, broken by the protrusion of sequin edges when she ran her finger over it. The chest, more superglue now than cardboard, had become a permanent feature on Alida’s desk. More than any other object, it evoked the happiest moments of her life; the time when she, Ian and Mia had formed a tight circle of love and anything had seemed possible.
As usual, Alida tried to shift her thoughts away from the event which had destroyed their happy balance. Closing her eyes, she tipped her head back to ease her neck muscles. In her mind’s eye, she saw an image of a man with a silver disc in place of a head standing in a yellow desert. The sun flashed off the disc. It was something she had dreamed earlier that night; one of the many disconnected but highly real dreams she’d had before emerging from sleep altogether. The disc-headed man had been holding Mia’s treasure chest in one of his hands, she remembered now. And in the open palm of his other hand had lain a baby with curled fists and carved, still features. He had stretched both arms out to Alida in invitation, as if asking her to make a choice.
The telephone shrilled; a shocking sound in the silence which caused Alida to swivel quickly around in her chair to stare at it. Instantly, she thought of Mia. She had only telephoned once in all the many weeks that she’d been travelling in India, but Alida was ever hopeful. Perhaps Mia had mixed up the time difference and that’s why she was calling so very early.
Or perhaps she was in some kind of trouble.
Putting the treasure chest hastily back on her desk, Alida jumped to her feet and scrambled across the bed, picking up the phone on her bedside table on the second ring.
At first, the only word she even half understood was ‘madam’. Her first confused thought was that if the disc-headed man had a mouth to open, he too would speak in this exotic jumble of sounds and call her madam in a voice as rich as treacle. But as the plastic casing of her phone pressed coolly against her cheek, the caller’s words separated from the accent which wound around them, and hung in the air like a threat.
Alida jerked her body upright.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “What’s happened?”
Now the man’s voice scraped through her ears like gravel. As Alida listened, the hand holding the telephone tightened until the knuckles strained at the skin.
“India, you say?”
Her voice was high and anxious. “Yes, Mia Salter is my daughter, but what..? Her passport? Gone missing? I’m sorry, you’ll have to speak more clearly, there’s such a bad echo. Which is missing, the passport or my daughter? Oh my God. Eight days? No, no, she hasn’t contacted me… The morgue? What are you suggesting? Are you trying to tell me you think my daughter is dead?… Dead, I said… My God, do you really think she… A pen, yes. Wait, let me just… OK, ready. Case file number… got it. Madurai, southern India… Guru? That’s the name of the hotel? Hotel Guru. Room seven. I’ll take the next possible plane… Yes, I realise that, but she could be hurt, she might need help, she might be lying senseless in a ditch somewhere… I am calm, but how would you feel if it were your daughter?… I said how would you… I understand. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’ll find her.”
Alida’s hands were shaking too badly for her to slot the cordless telephone back onto its stand. Instead she slid it onto the bedside table and stared frozen-eyed into the orange glow of her nightlight. Her mind flashed with accident scenes: concertinaed train carriages, turned-over buses. Bloodied tarmac. In the warm light, the worry grooves on Alida’s narrow face were softened and her eyes, deep and dark, were Mia’s.
“Daughter is lost,” the Indian policeman had said with a shrug in his voice as if advising her not to waste her airfare. “Find her cannot guarantee.”
Alida could taste bile at the back of her throat. The bedroom around her seemed vast; she felt shrunken. “Not again,” she whispered.
“Many foreigners go missing,” the policeman had said. “Often we find them well and alive. But accidents also are possible. Then unhappily we find them in the morgue.” In the aching space behind her eyelids, Alida could feel the memories escalating into grief and rage as they had done before.
Her bedroom was steeped in expectant silence. “I’m not going to cry,” she muttered. “It can’t be too late.”
The curtains were momentarily parted as a waft of air tumbled in from the night and rolled across the wooden floor. Its coolness enveloped Alida like a shroud as she sat on the bed, so that she curled her toes up and shivered.
I’m going to India, she thought, and in one smooth motion she gathered her limbs and leaped from the bed.
Excerpt from Chapter Two
Thursday 15th May, 2008
This is quite a daring thing I’m doing – travelling alone aged eighteen and a half through a country so full that it reminds me of my first time in the sea as a three-year-old in a floppy sunhat and my Pink Panther swimming costume. I waded in up to my waist holding my father’s hand, and I gasped and gasped at the cold salt pushing into and around me, the gelatinous seaweed sliming up through my toes, the sunlight splashing so brightly on the tips of the waves that I heard musical notes as I watched. My father asked if I was enjoying myself and I couldn’t respond. The velveteen foam, the thorny cries of the gulls, the cold potato grasp of his hand; these things took up all the spaces of my mind. Entering the sea was all-round sensory submersion and it turned me into a walking jelly. Being here is the same. I feel that no part of me can close itself off from India; it enters me from all around and, wholly submerged, I float in it, drown in it, sleep and dream and cry in it.
I’ve been here for three and a half weeks, and for the past ten days I’ve been having astonishing dreams. The dreams are full of the past. They show me in bright, alive images things that have been holding their breath in a corner of my mind for most of my life. The memories are different weights and shapes, and almost all of them scald me. I want to nail them to the page so that I can look at them without flinching. That’s what this notebook is for.
Their voices slice up through my bed until the mattress is studded with pins which prickle my skin. She is half crying, half shouting. His chocolaty voice is trying to cram her words back into her mouth but they spill out in shards. I climb down onto the floor. Now the pins are in the carpet, puncturing the soles of my feet. I tiptoe painfully onto the landing. Here, it is much louder. “… not in control anymore. The whole thing could just fly apart, don’t you get it?” she cries.
I kneel silently on the carpet and push my face between the banisters to hear better. The cool wood on my cheeks makes a comforting frame.
“You’re collapsing into yourself, Alida. Who’s that going to help?”
Her low, furious reply drills the air and turns it smoky grey. On my tongue, there’s the faintest taste of ashes. I look down so that my eyes are almost closed, and swivel my gaze to the left. I can see the bottom of the sitting room door. It’s half open, but they are beyond my vision.
“…no support. All you’re interested in is getting our sex life back on track, as if that’s the answer to everything.”
I edge further forward and my ears burn against the wood.
“You can’t shut yourself off from pleasure for the rest of your life.”
“Pleasure? Do you really think pleasure still exists for me in any way or form?”
My head pops through the banisters and the pressure eases off my ears. I can see further into the sitting room now. I can see the crackling green branches of the Christmas tree. The fairy lights are switched off. I can see the lower half of my mother as she sits in the armchair by the window. Her pale shins protrude from her dressing gown. Her hands are twisted into a bony sculpture which rests uneasily on her lap.
“Don’t let what happened distance you from Mia.”
I listen intently, but I don’t catch her murmured reply. There’s a long pause. Too long. They must be getting tired. Any minute now they’ll leave the sitting room and discover that I’m not in bed. I pull my head sharply back but the banisters grip it from either side. I push forward, pull back. How could my head have grown bigger so fast? I pull until it hurts but still I can’t get back through.
I’m here for good.
They’ll have to feed me through the banisters, bring me a potty to wee in. Tears cut across my eyes and I consider calling down to them for help but my mother’s voice wobbles through the door.
“…nonsense she comes out with, Ian. Recently she insisted that when the blackbirds sang in the garden, she could see golden bubbles coming out of their beaks. She’s six years old and she talks as if she’s taken LSD. If she weren’t so caught up in her own little world, then perhaps –”
I scream, loud and wide. My scream tastes of vomity burps. It fractures the air in the hall.
They come running, orange and blue bounding up the stairs side by side. “Stuck!” I screech, and blood slams through the veins in my head.
My father puts his hands on his hips and laughs in a shower of colour, but she pauses on the stairs with her hand at her throat. Her eyes are fixed on my face. She knows I heard her unfinished sentence. She knows I completed it in my mind and that it has already become part of me.
I continue to wail while my father soaps my ears to make them slippery and coaxes my head back through the banisters. When my mother moves forward to fold me into her arms, I don’t let her touch me.
I can be invisible. I can disappear along the thin sigh of my breath, grow so quiet and still that I am not even sure I exist anymore.
The gap between the double bed and the floor was just wide enough for me to slide into, shifting crab-like until I reached the centre. My chest grazes the underside of the bed at the crest of every breath. I am a star-shaped spy, my fingers and heels making friends with the dust. How long have these soft balls of fluff lain here and what secrets have they heard my parents whisper? Alida – that’s what I call her nowadays, because the word mummy flays her face open like a slap – Alida is making the bed.
I drop my eyes sideways and watch her bare feet step nimbly as she tweaks and plumps. The cherry red polish on her toenails is chipped. Her thoughts are far away from me, struggling through memories she cannot bear to remember or forget. She doesn’t sense the tickle of my fingertips on the carpet. She doesn’t hear the muffled booming of my heart.
Very soon I will be nothing more than a star-shaped scattering of fluff.
When I was a baby, my mother was a carousel of colours, the most dazzling thing I had ever seen. She smelled of milky vanilla love. She bounced and turned like the clown mobile above my cot. She spread warmth around me in orange layers and her hands comforted and played. If she vanished from sight for too long, I screwed up my fists and eyes and screamed myself purple. When she reappeared, relief would flood my nappy in a lava spurt of urine. She was everything to me, a giant with a giant’s strength.
Now she is different. She has shrunk and her eyes don’t laugh in streams of sparks. I want to be small again, but every day I grow bigger and she grows further away.
When he knelt by my bed to kiss me goodnight, Daddy said he might have to go away soon. His tie flopped onto my chest and I held it with both hands. It was slippery red and green stripes.
“Where away?” I asked. When he sighed, I tasted ashes on my tongue. I stared at him then, wide awake. Thin red threads trembled across the whites of his eyes. “Don’t go away,” I said. He laid his head on my chest and seemed to fall asleep. I clutched his tie and tried to count the hairs sprouting from his ear. His head was heavy and I didn’t know what to do so I just said it again and again in a smashed glass voice.
“Don’t go away.”
Review by Jan Fortune-Wood, co-founder and editor of Cinnamon Press
When the World is Warm Vanilla Custard
Breathing in Colour; Clare Jay; 280pp; Piatkus; £7.99
Clare Jay is a lecturer in creative writing who specialises in ‘dreaming into writing’ workshops. Her short stories and poetry have already won several prizes, including first place in the most recent Cinnamon Press writing award, with the extra-ordinary and powerful title story of the anthology, The Sandhopper Lover. In one sense it’s not surprising that her writing has been noticed by a solid, quality publisher; writing this good deserves to be read. What is refreshing is to see such innovative writing getting attention.
Breathing in Colour is a novel with a well mined theme, the disappearance of a child. The book opens with Alida receiving the news that her eighteen year old daughter, Mia, has gone missing while back packing in India and might well be dead. Like other novels in this genre there is a back story of pain and repressed memories and emotions that emerges slowly as the novel progresses. Into this mix is thrown a broken marriage and an uneasy relationship between Alida and Mia’s father, Ian, who is far too eager to dismiss Alida’s competence and theories. To complicate matters further Alida encounters Taos as she begins her search in India. A jaded and enigmatic Australian, who Alida is not wholly convinced is trustworthy, Taos has his own story that resonates with the main plot, enriching the narrative.
All of this alone would make for an interesting read, but the well developed, credible characters and a compelling plot are only the skeleton of a novel for a writer of Clare Jay’s talent. Alida is someone who has lucid dreams and Jay uses her considerable knowledge of this area to great effect. In less able hands the dreams could easily be clumsy and artificial; the use of dreams is ambitious and generally fails, but Jay deploys exactly the right language and control to ensure that Alida’s dreams are gripping, authentic and lift the narrative beyond the ordinary. And Jay doesn’t stop there. Mia has grown up with the condition of synaesthesia and interspersed with the third person narratives of Alida’s search and gradual epiphany are diary entries written by Mia and going back to her childhood. The imagery in these passages is stunning. So often debut novel writers simply over-write when they are trying to convey description, but Jay’s poetic sensibilities are stretched to the maximum here and results some of the most innovative imagery I’ve read in prose. The very best images combine surprise and lucid observation.
The result is one of the most poignant, humane, original and exquisitely written first novels I’ve come across. I’m proud that Cinnamon Press has published stories and poems by Clare Jay and I eagerly await her next novel. This is a writer with a truly unique voice and a willingness to take risks with form and language to produce something inventive. By the end of the novel I knew what it was to breathe in colour. Buy the book.