A Review of: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
The novel I’m reviewing today deals with topics of mental health and suicide. As someone who personally struggles with mental illness, I want you to know that there is never any shame at reaching out when you need help. If you don’t feel comfortable confiding in someone in your life or feel like you have no one to turn to, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are needed and you deserve to be here.
Genre: Contemporary/Magical Realism
Length: 462 pages
Final Rating: 5 stars
The Astonishing Color of After is a young adult contemporary/magical realism novel. The main protagonist, Leigh Chen Sanders, is half-white and half-Taiwanese. She has never met her maternal grandparents from whom her mother has long been estranged. At the start of the novel, Leigh’s mother commits suicide and Leigh believes her mother has turned into a red bird. She feels her mother is telling her to go to Taiwan to meet her grandparents, and so she does.
This story is told from the first person perspective of Leigh, though it is told both in present day and in flashbacks. I could truly feel Leigh’s longing to connect with her maternal grandparents (despite the language barrier), her confused feelings for her childhood best friend Axel, and her desperation to keep hold of her mother. Leigh, being an artist, describes emotions, sounds, and events with colors. She has this unique way of seeing the world that made reading from her perspective an emotional journey.
I very much enjoyed Leigh as a character and a narrator. There isn’t all that much to say about her besides what I mentioned above. Besides Leigh, the characters that I felt were most impactful were Feng, Waipo, and Leigh’s late mother Dory.
Feng was a family friend of Leigh’s grandparents who served as a translator between them. Feng was sweet and really helpful to Leigh, though Leigh was often upset with her. Really this was Leigh’s jealousy at Feng’s close relationship with her grandparents and her festering sense of inadequacy at having not been raised to fully embrace her Taiwanese heritage.
Waipo was Leigh’s grandmother, and though she and Leigh struggled to communicate verbally I still really enjoyed their loving grandmother-granddaughter dynamic.
We meet Leigh’s mother Dory through flashbacks, and I think the author did a wonderful job portraying a woman struggling with increasingly crippling depression while also still trying to be a good mother.
Despite being a decently long book, I felt like this novel had really nice pacing. This was helped by the flashbacks which never felt forced into the story but were rather cohesive with it. The chapters were also, generally, quite short, which gave an illusion of the novel being shorter/quicker.
Final Thoughts/Would I Recommend This Read?:
This is such a delicate subject to write about, but this story was definitely in capable hands. It was honestly difficult for me to believe that this was Ms. Pan’s debut novel because it was so well written. If you’re sensitive to topics of suicide and mental illness, then this probably isn’t the book for you. However, this is one of the most beautifully written, lyrical novels I’ve ever read. It has made its way to the top of my all-time favorite books list so, yes, I would recommend it.