Author: Emily XR Pan
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub Date: Mar. 2018 (read May 2018)
I’m not a big lover of magical realism, so when I first read the synopsis for this book, I was not at all into it (despite the absolutely gorgeous cover). But I literally haven’t heard a bad review of this book so I decided to give it a try.
I’m not going to lie, it did take me a while to get into this book. It was definitely a slower read for me and I did even take a break in the first third of the book and read a complete other book before returning to this. There was no part of this book that I didn’t enjoy, it’s just one of those slower paced books that took me a little longer to get through, but not from lack of enjoyment.
The Astonishing Color of After is about American-Taiwanese teenager Leigh and her mother who has just committed suicide. Leigh is devastated by the death of her mother, but when she is repeatedly visited by a red bird she believes to be her mother, she is set on a path to discover the secrets of her family and Taiwanese roots. Leigh has never met her Taiwanese grandparents and the bird sets her on a trip to Taiwan to try and remember those things which her mother never shared with her.
While Leigh gets to know her grandparents and searches for her mother in Taiwan, we get flashbacks of the last 2 years. We learn about the decline of her mother’s mental health, the disappearance of her father within her everyday life, her great love and aptitude for art, and her lifelong friendship with Axel that has started to develop into something more.
First off, the writing in this book is fantastic. I loved Emily Pan’s style of writing and her descriptions of emotions turned to colour are gorgeous! As children, Leigh and Axel constantly describe their feelings and emotions to one another at any particular moment through different colours, such as the emerald green of jealousy, the burnt orange of desire, or the colourless absence of grief. Pan consistently uses colour throughout the novel to convey emotion and it made for the most breath-taking writing and journey.
This reminded me a little bit of Hour of the Bees, which is a middle grade book I read a few years ago and really liked (and one of the few magical realism books I’ve read). I actually didn’t have any problem with the whole ‘reincarnated as a bird’ idea (it played out a lot differently than I was expecting) and I really liked how the author used magical realism to transport us through memories. I also loved that this was mostly set in Taiwan and how the author integrated in several Taiwanese cultural elements to the story, such as Ghost Month.
This is primarily a story about mental health and grief. The author states in the afterward that she didn’t want to set out any one reason why Leigh’s mother may have killed herself and I really appreciated that. She wanted this to be more of a story that shows that depression can affect anyone and have no rhyme or reason. There’s generally not a specific cause to which you can attribute depression or a specific way in which people react or heal. Depression was something Leigh’s mom struggled with for many years and I thought Pan took us on a beautiful emotional journey, showing us both positive and negative memories that Leigh has of both of her parents.
I was in love with the flashbacks though. I loved Leigh and Axel’s relationship and their gradual transition from friends to something more. I thought it captured so well what it’s like being 15 and starting to develop feelings for someone – the embarrassment of being a teenager with changing hormones, the want for something more, the confusion of figuring out each other’s feelings, the fear of rejection – so accurate. I also really liked how she tied art and music into the story and the theme that liberal arts are still viable careers and that you shouldn’t be afraid to pursue things that bring you great joy.
Overall I think this book is super well written and strikes the perfect balance of sadness and sweetness. Like I said, it wasn’t the fastest read for me, but definitely worth it! 4.5 stars!