The Astonishing Color of Afterby Emily X.R. Pan
Published on March 20, 2018
by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genres: Culture, Family, Magical Realism, Young Adult
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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.
What a surprise The Astonishing Color of After was. It’s a beautiful look at family, mental health, identity, love, and forgiveness. I’m glad I read this book when I did; it’s stayed on my mind since I turned the last page.
Novels discussing mental health can be tricky. They either run the risk of romanticizing it or downplaying the way it affects a person. Fortunately, the book does neither. This is a look at how depression affects a family. There’s a long-standing misunderstanding about mental illness, especially depression. It’s especially relevant in Asian cultures. Having a mental illness is usually considered a weakness. Seeking help is rare. Here, nothing is glossed over. It’s heartbreaking and haunting.
Magical realism elements are present throughout. Leigh believes her mother is now a bird, always out of her reach. This takes her to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents and discover a past her mother never spoke of. Leigh wants answers and ends up getting more. Color plays a pivotal role in her journey–this is a symphony of shades and hues as she learns about her family and culture.
She finds her identity. Growing up biracial in the U.S., she’s weathered the questions of “What are you?” from strangers. I related to this so much. I’m part Chinese and part Mexican. As a child, I was constantly asked what I was. It made me feel subhuman and ashamed of myself. When I get asked “What are you?” now, sometimes I say I’m a human being, which annoys the person asking me. It’s not the most mature response, but it’s true. 🙂
There’s something more happening between Leigh and her best friend, Axel. Axel is supportive, kind, and funny. They feel like friends. And that brings me to my gripe–Leigh and Axel are better as friends. I think the story would have been stronger without the romance. There were also moments when the book started to feel long. With tighter editing, The Astonishing Color of After would have been a five star read for me. However, this book is truly something unique and I’m glad it’s being talked about.