The Astonishing Color of After – Emily X.R. Pan – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers – Published 20 March 2018
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.
Imaginative, and with lyrical writing, The Astonishing Color of After is perfect if you enjoy a touch of magical realism served alongside plenty of heartbreak. Addressing the impact of suicide and the devastation it brings to the surrounding family members and friends, The Astonishing Color of After tackles this sensitive topic with delicacy, magic, and a sincere forthrightness.
When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide, Leigh’s world is thrown into chaos. One thing of which she is sure: her mother has turned into a beautiful, red bird. And that bird wants her to travel to Taiwan. Meeting her grandparents for the first time, exploring the places her mother once visited, and trying to uncover the long-buried truths of her family, Leigh slowly starts to face her mother’s death and the events leading up to it.
Over the years I have called many a book ‘important’. And yet, The Astonishing Color of After is important with a capital I. The Astonishing Color of After tackles the topic of suicide and the aftermath of suicide in an upfront way, which is so very needed in today’s society. The author’s note only expands on the very clear level of care, understanding and personal experience that has gone into making this book as considered and profound as it is.
I found The Astonishing Color of After to be a long, slow novel. Perhaps I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to it the attention it deserved, but the introspective nature of the novel creates a focus on emotions and leaves little room for action or quick plot developments. It is a character driven story. Leigh narrates, but interspersed between the chapters are sections of memories – both Leigh’s memories from different points in her childhood and memories of other characters gifted to her by magical means. The chapters are short, but many – over 100. I most enjoyed memory flashbacks. And the more we-both readers and Leigh alike-witness, the more the story falls into place. I particularly liked the ending. I loved how it all comes together. I also liked how there were no definitive answers – depression is a disease that sometimes has no answers, rhyme, or reason.
While trying to understand the death of her mother, piecing together her recollections of the events leading up to the last few months, and experiencing memories of events that extend well past her lifetime, Leigh is also trying to comprehend the change in her relationship with her best friend, Axel. Unrequited love, complicated relationships, unspoken secrets – they all add another layer to everything else with which Leigh is dealing.
Art dominates much of the way Leigh thinks and expresses herself, which is neatly carried through to the writing style. Emotions, feelings, and situations are all likened to colours. It only adds to the mystical feeling of the novel. Again, no answers are given for the seemingly otherworldly or magical events that Leigh witnesses. Again, none are needed. It all fits perfectly together.
The Astonishing Color of After is an Important book, that address in such a stigma-free way the confusing aftermath of suicide, and the healing journey that only love, family, and friendship can provide.
The publishers provided an advanced readers copy of this book for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.
Category: Young adult fiction.
Genre: Fantasy – Magical realism.
Themes: Suicide, death, grief, family, Taiwan, depression, mental health, parents, birds, friendship, art, secrets, music, ghosts, love, LGBT.
Reading age guide: Ages 12/13 and up.
Advisory: Sexual references, vaguely implied references to mast******** and sexual relationships. Mature themes, suicide. Coarse language, sh** (23), as***** (1), pi** (4).
Published: 20 March 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Format: Hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook. 480 pages.