The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan – #BookReview

Goodreads: The Astonishing Color of After
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary, Magical Realism, Fantasy
Panda Rating:

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird. Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life. Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

“Depression, I opened my mouth to say, but the word refused to take shape. Why was it so hard to talk about this? Why did my mother’s condition feel like this big secret?”

The Astonishing Color of After is a heart-wrenching story of a teenager trying to come to terms with her mother’s suicide and simultaneously exploring a side of her heritage that she never knew before. This isn’t a fast-paced or action-packed read. While filled with beautiful and poetic prose and rich emotions that are captured through the full spectrum of colors, the pace is rather slow. It’s the kind of story that requires savoring because there’s a lot going on. If I think about the range of emotions that I encountered, off the top of my head, I’d say: grief, anger, sadness, desperation, longing, love, regret, and happiness. And it’s not just tiny bursts of these emotions either, but waves of them pulling you in and up and down… Like I said, there’s a lot going on in this story.

We follow Leigh Sanders. Teenager. Chinese-Irish-American. Gifted young artist. Also, someone who experiences the world in color. Literally. They call it Synesthesia. As a result, this book is so rich with it – swirls and whirls of color to describe emotions, events, characters. Then when she loses her mother, Leigh is mired in such deep grief that she sees things in black and white, when one night her mother comes to her as a bright-red beautiful bird. Desperate to understand why her mother was so unhappy, Leigh embarks on a journey which takes her to Taiwan, where she meets her Chinese grandparents for the first time.

I never was big on magical realism but I thought how Pan incorporates elements of it into her story was very fitting. I feel like magical realism plays a big role in a lot of Asian cultures; we have a lot of stories with ghosts, spirits and unlikely magical events that happen in many Asian cultures. I feel that the magical events in this story further highlighted just how affected Leigh was by her mother’s suicide. AsLeigh recalls more memories and events become increasingly bizarre, her desperation to understand the why and how becomes more palpable.

Here is my mother, with wings instead of hands, and feathers instead of hair. Here is my mother, the reddest of brilliant reds, the color of my love and my fear, all of my fiercest feelings trailing after her in the sky like the tail of a comet.

I have to be honest–there were moments when this book became too overwhelming for me. Not only because there’s so much going on in the story, but at the heart of it is a profound exploration of depression. I never really understood it when people said they read something and felt triggered, but I finally understood when I read this book. Pan does such a raw portrayal of depression; it’s just very honest and upfront. There’s no ‘explanation’ to depression; it wears many faces and seemingly comes and goes as it pleases. As someone who suffers from depression, reading about how Dory’s life was basically eclipsed by it, was quite terrifying in how relatable it was. So, I definitely had to take breaks between reading and I pushed myself to finish this, but this story was so worth it.

“Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger.”

This story takes us on a journey of discovery through dealing with depression, grief, love, family and friendship. I was feeling all the feels and crying buckets by the end of this book. Because of its subject matter, this book is undoubtedly one my reads that hit home the hardest. It’s not an easy topic to discuss and it’s definitely not an easy topic to read, but Pan does a truly incredible job of it.

Pan also does an amazing job in capturing the tumultuous thoughts, emotions, hopes and fears of a teenager who goes through an achingly big loss. In her search for answers, Leigh’s character also experienced a rich self-discovery of her Chinese roots and a deep understanding of family and friendship. We are with Leigh as she processes her grief, her confusion, her anger and frustration, and we are also with her as she finally gets her closure and finds peace with the loss of her mother. This is a highly recommended read.

Have you read The Astonishing Color of After? What’d you think of it? Let me know in the comments and let’s chat!