The Astonishing Color of After
By Emily X. R. Pan
Published March 20, 2018
The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful and unflinching look at love, loss, and grief. It’s a debut novel, with lovely, lyrical writing.
At 15, Leigh Chen Sanders has just lost her mother, who committed suicide while Leigh was kissing her best friend and long-time crush, Axel. Freaked out by the kiss and what it might mean, Leigh rushes home, only to learn that her mother is dead. Leigh’s father is so wrapped up in his own grief that he ends up taking Leigh to Taiwan to visit her mother’s parents, and then he leaves her there. This is bad enough, but Leigh has never met her grandparents (her mother was estranged from them), and they don’t speak English and she doesn’t speak Mandarin.
Leigh is in her own grieving place. She’s confused and sad and angry. Oh, and she’s convinced her mother has turned into a bird. The book opens with the following passage:
My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.
As crazy as this sounds, Leigh is completely convinced that her mother is a bird. Shortly after her mother’s death, she sees a large red bird, and when she sees the bird again in Taiwan, she believes her mother is reaching out to her. Leigh finds incense in her room at her grandparents, and when she burns a stick, she finds herself inside a memory, sometimes her own memory and sometimes one of her family members’ memories.
Yes, it’s a little odd, and if you’re not fan of magical realism, this book may not be for you, but I absolutely loved it. Leigh’s journey through dealing with her grief, meeting her grandparents for the first time, learning about her family history, and coming to terms with it is beautiful and gripping and lovely.
The Astonishing Color of After is also a realistic look at depression. Leigh’s mother has suffered from depression since Leigh was a young child, and the ups and down of her illness have had a profound effect on her family. Leigh’s father travels a lot of work, and he seems to be using it as an excuse to get away from his family. Leigh ends up having to take care of her mother and herself. The book really shows how difficult it can be for both the person with the mental illness and everyone around them.
Although it’s not the main focus of the book, The Astonishing Color of After deals with Leigh’s identity as a biracial person (her father is white). When she goes to Taiwan, she’s in the weird position of being half-Chinese, but not speaking the language or really understanding much about the culture. She hears strangers say “hunxie” when they see her and her grandmother explains that it means biracial (literally “mixed blood”). Unfortunately, she’s used to people pointing out that she’s different:
Back at home, sometimes people say I look exotic or foreign. Sometimes they even mean it as a compliment. I guess they don’t hear how it makes me sound like I’m some animal on display at the zoo.
This book reminded me a bit of I’ll Give You the Sun, which is also about teenagers grieving for their mother. I’ll Give You the Sun is one of my favorite books, so this is high praise.
I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.