by Lubaba Mahmud, Staff Writer
The stunning cover of The Astonishing Color of After with the silhouette of a majestic bird soaring on the rich magenta and mulberry sky caught my eye when I was browsing the library’s young adult (YA) section. When I initially picked this book up, I had no idea that it would take me on an emotional journey of love and loss.
In The Astonishing Color of After, author Emily X.R. Pan tells the story of young protagonist Leigh Chen Sanders. When her mother, Dory, dies of suicide after a long battle with depression, she is convinced that Dory has returned to see her in the form of a bird. She goes to Taiwan, her mother’s birthplace, in an attempt to reunite with the bird. Leigh’s chase of the mysterious bird unveils emotional family stories that will have readers hooked.
Pan’s exploration of complex subjects like mental health and suicide is praiseworthy. She does not romanticize suicide or victim-blame, instead she is incredibly insightful as she uncovers Dory’s battle with depression. Leigh’s heartbreaking personal journey involves, among other things, dealing with the feeling of guilt when a loved one dies of suicide. This is a particularly difficult subject to address, and Pan’s achingly humane narrative does justice to it. This book also pays attention to a wide variety of important issues, such as the struggles of a mixed-race person, the stigma attached to pursuing art, as well as positive LGBTQ2+ parenting. Even though these components aren’t necessarily related to each other, Pan’s storyline was effortless.
In spite of these positives, the style of writing repeatedly distracted me from the interesting plot. What could have been emotionally convincing was often just sappy instead. This is a signature move of the YA genre, and I really wish that this book rose above it. One annoying theme was the “colour-dependent” conversation Leigh has with her best friend and long-time crush, Axel. As both Leigh and Axel are aspiring artists, they often ask each other “What colour?” to figure out what they’re feeling at the moment. This resulted in extremely random shades of hundreds of colours that Leigh “felt” at the moment. I think this technique could have been convincing if it was not highly overused and not pushing imaginative boundaries — I mean, using some wild shade of orange to describe sadness isn’t all that believable.
Since the first paragraph of the book says that Leigh’s mother being a bird isn’t some “stream-of-conscious metaphorical crap,” I thought this book would be a refreshing take on YA and magical realism; but alas, overwhelmingly metaphorical and gimmicky writing was what I got instead. Another aspect that I didn’t like was Leigh’s teenage angst and lack of character depth. While I absolutely empathised with her emotional journey, I could not connect with her as a person. The flowery writing and somewhat flat protagonist bumped this book down to a generous three stars from me.
The Astonishing Color of After had all the ingredients of a fantastic book, but it lost its touch somewhere along the line. While I couldn’t love this one, it was still an enjoyable read. Overall, It is an impressive debut, one in which the writer’s efforts to give a spotlight to important subjects is commendable.