Review: Blue in the Red House by Sarah Madden, by Shelley Carter

Title: Blue in the Red House
Author: Sarah Madden
Genre: Magical Realism & Memoir
Favourite Part: When Ms. De Beer and Me-Two meet for the first time
Favourite Quote: “She had been poised to triumph, to step out into the world with new resolve and the battle won, but now she was sucked back into the room, the floodwaters bringing the mud of regret in with their sediment.”

If Lewis Carroll’s Alice wrote a memoir, it would be a lot like Sarah Madden’s Blue in the Red House. Equal parts absurd and whimsical, the magical realism/memoir hybrid is an adventure unlike anything else I have read.

Blue in the Red House follows Ms. De Beer, a woman seeking help from a doctor regarding issues she is having with seeing the colour red. Simply put, she wants her eyes removed. Needing to wear multiple sunglasses at a time, and feeling overstimulated in her daily life, she goes to this doctor with her last resort. But the doctor is “the same as the rest – dismissive, amused, uncomprehending.” The way in which Madden weaves elements of magical realism into accounts of what I can imagine to be a tiresome journey towards a diagnosis is what sets this memoir apart from any others I have read.

Though never mentioned outright in the story, Blue in the Red House is an account of Madden’s own experiences with being diagnosed with autism at age 34. The way in which this story is written gives the reader an idea of how autism can affect sensory perceptions, and the immersive language creates a world not unlike falling down the rabbit hole.

Elements of magical realism are introduced early on in the story, and in quick succession. At first I found it overwhelming and confusing at times, trying to get a grasp of the worldbuilding taking place using a writing style I wasn’t necessarily used to. For example, at the end of Chapter One we are introduced to Me-Two, a clone of Ms. De Beer, who cannot see the colour blue. The dialogue between the two characters gets a little muddled at times, and I found myself having to re-read some parts to get a full understanding of what was happening. That being said, there is a self-awareness in the writing that allows for these issues to be resolved in a way that directly addresses the reader.

The writing style of this book is positively Lewis Carroll-esque, and once I had situated myself in the topsy-turvy world constructed by Madden, I devoured this book. Madden uses colours as a way to describe different ‘ailments’ that the characters are experiencing – the treatments for which come in the form of consuming food of that colour. Ms. De Beer has been prescribed a diet of steak and cherries, whereas Me-Two eats blueberries and blue jellybeans.

While the language in the book is reminiscent of children’s stories – “noodly and wobbling limbs”, “flibbertyjibbit” – it takes on a tone that is much darker, which I loved! It reminded me of stories such as Coraline, where under the guise of being a story for children, we are exposed to grim and disturbing tales that are as amusing as they are unsettling. There is a death in the book that I found myself cringing at the graphic nature of, but at the same time chuckling at the way it is handled by the main character.

There is an abundance of rich imagery and themes in this book, and at only 90 pages I can easily see it incorporated into school curriculums as a point of discussion for students. I have not read anything by a self-described autistic writer before and doing so has made me realise how important this story is. It is heartening to see that own voices movement providing the opportunity for us to read more diverse stories like this one. If you have an afternoon free (you will read this in one sitting, trust me), pick up this book and do yourself a favour. I highly recommend this book to any Lewis Carroll fans, or to anyone who wants to experience a memoir that is truly unique.

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