Published by Orion, Hachette Australia on March 22nd 2018
Genres: Young Adult, Magical Realism, Diversity, Own Voices
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Leigh Chen Sanders is sixteen when her mother dies by suicide, leaving only a scribbled note: 'I want you to remember'. Leigh doesn't know what it means, but when a red bird appears with a message, she finds herself travelling to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time.
Leigh is far away from home and far away from Axel, her best friend, who she stupidly kissed on the night her mother died - leaving her with a swell of guilt that she wasn't home, and a heavy heart, thinking she may have destroyed the one good thing left in her life.
Overwhelmed by grief and the burden of fulfilling her mother's last wish, Leigh retreats into her art and into her memories, where colours collide and the rules of reality are broken. The only thing Leigh is certain about is that she must find out the truth. She must remember.
With lyrical prose and magical elements, Emily X.R. Pan's stunning debut novel alternates between past and present, romance and despair, as one girl attempts to find herself through family history, art, friendship, and love.ba
Every once in a while, a book comes along and sweeps you off your feet, with its gentle exploration of grief and the beautiful story told within its pages. Exploring the life of Leigh as she bonds with her mother after she passes away from suicide, it didn’t take long for The Astonishing Colour of After to take hold of my heart with its meaningful story.
Books exploring grief or the death of a parent are not new, but the way this one explored it was definitely different. Told through her mother’s flashbacks, moments with her grandparents and passing memories with her best friend Axel, we slowly unravel the pieces of Leigh’s life as well as her family’s. There’s an element of magical realism here, as she visits Taiwan in search of a red bird, which she believes is a recarnation of her mother. As she bonds with her grandparents who don’t speak English, and visit her mother’s favourite places during her childhood. Leigh learns more about her family than she ever thought possible and it brings her closer than ever to her mother.
As an artist and a trichromatic, Leigh can also see more colours than the average person which she describes in vivid detail as she experiences different emotions. It’s the first time I’ve learnt of this term and I thought it was a really beautiful way to tell a story. She shares this talent with her best friend Axel, one who she’s left behind in America without any communication at all. There is quite a lot of guilt and unresolved feelings for him, which is also a big part of the story and how she copes with her grief.
The Astonishing Colour of After is significant for a number of reasons: it covers grief and depression in such a nuanced way, that is closely tied with the stigma that surrounds mental illness in Asian culture. As a child and a teenager, she sensed that there was always something not quite right with her mother, but she was afraid to even think it. It’s already difficult enough to be experiencing your mother’s mood swings when you are young, but for everyone in your family to deny it and not relay it to you as a child…that makes it all the more difficult, and it’s hard not to attribute the blame to yourself.
Did we love her wrong? How did we fail?
As it’s written by an own voices author, I could see how the elements of Chinese culture are closely tied into the narrative. From the tradition of Ghost Month, to the abundance of food at the night markets, to the superstition within the culture, these elements felt really familiar to me and it was great seeing them explored in the novel. With a few key Mandarin phrases thrown in throughout the story, it really helped bring the Taiwanese setting to life along with Leigh’s understanding of the culture. Most importantly of all, the book also covers the difference in parenting between traditional Asian parents who have strict expectations of you, in contrast with the parenting of those from migrant families. This was such an important part of the novel that isn’t entirely hard to believe when it came to the crux of the novel.
I also felt that Leigh’s identity as a biracial Taiwanese-American was covered really well – she never feels right at home, as she’s referred to as “exotic” in America and as a “mixed blood” back in Taiwan. Caught between two identities, Leigh often feels isolated as she’s constantly commented on by strangers, even someone singling her out and pointing at her like some sort of zoo animal.
The colors of this kind of grief should be stark and piercing, with the alarmed brightness of something toxic. Not the quiet hue of shadows.
The Astonishing Colour of After is such an important book, raising awareness of depression and mental illness within a family but also the stigma that surrounds it. It’s such a beautiful exploration of Taiwanese culture and the love of one’s family, with many Chinese phrases and traditions that felt familiar. I loved how it gently unfolded the loss that Leigh felt with the mystery behind her mother’s family, as she learnt more about her past. Told through a non-linear plotline and gorgeous prose, The Astonishing Colour of After is one of my favourite books of the year.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Thanks to Hachette Australia for sending me a review copy!
The Astonishing Colour of After is available from Australian bookstores for RRP$16.99 or from The Book Depository.
Trigger warnings: suicide, depression
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