Review: The Astonishing Color of After
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X.R. Pan (2018)
TW: Suicide & Depression
Magical realism, with a deep dive into a young biracial girl's identity as she tries to find clues that may help explain her mother's suicide.
This debut novel begins when Leigh, a half-Taiwanese, half-white high school girl, kisses her best friend Axel at his house... while at her own home, her mother, Dory, is taking her own life. Leigh and her father are, of course, devastated, and spend time wandering around the house like ghosts themselves, not talking, barely feeling, and avoiding the master bedroom, where Dory was found. Until, that is, one evening when Leigh walks outside and finds that a huge red bird that is her mother has delivered a box of memorabilia and a message to "bring it with you when you come." Leigh convinces her father that they need to travel to Taiwan.
The magical realism continues when, after meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time, Leigh finds ways of traveling back in time to view memories belonging to her mother, father, grandparents, and aunt that she has only just learned of. She seeks out places that were important to her mother in order to bring on these memories, and to find the bird again, to try to communicate with her mother. In the process, she gets to know her grandparents, deepens her relationship with Taiwanese culture, and, eventually, connects with her father as they learn to move on without Dory.
Leigh's exploration of her identity and her family's dynamics, and the non-romanticized portrayal of depression worked for me. I thought it was a tender, realistic story of how depression can arise without, necessarily, a specific catalyst or tragedy, how it affects everyone in the person's circle, and a family's journey after the suicide of a loved one.
The romance with her friend Axel, and the color metaphors sprinkled throughout the text did not work for me. I just found both distracting. I usually skipped over the color-related parts. I think they were meant to emphasize that Leigh is an artist and therefore sees the world in bright vibrant colors? But I was never clear as to whether she is supposed to have synesthesia (where one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses) where, like, her emotions have colors, I guess? Or if she just uses color to express emotions? I don't know, I never really understood the point, and I don't think it added anything to the story, especially considering that her artwork was all done in black and white. I also didn't really care about the awkward, cringe-worthy high school romance. But... maybe that means it was realistic!
Overall, I enjoyed it. Not a favorite, but it was a nice book to bounce back and forth to as I continue to read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - which is excellent, but dense, and heavy.
2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature
2020 Lincoln Award
UP NEXT: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our
Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein