Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: "The Astonishing Color of After" by Emily X.R. Pan

Lyrical, emotionally powerful, even fantastical at times, The Astonishing Color of After is a stunning, poignant look at grief, family, love, and secrets that packs a real punch, and leaves you with gorgeous images in your mind.

"We try so hard to make these little time capsules. Memories strung up just so, like holiday lights, casting the perfect glow in the perfect tones. But that picking and choosing what to look at, what to put on display—that's not the true nature of remembering. Memory is a mean thing, slicing at you from the harshest angles, dipping your consciousness into the wrong colors again and again."

Leigh Sanders has always caught people's attention—for the colorful streaks she puts in her hair, her artistic talent, and her mixed heritage, as her mother is Chinese and her father is Irish-American. But no matter how many times she asked through her childhood, she's never met her maternal grandparents, never heard much about her mother's life before she met Leigh's father while studying in America. It's always a door that has remained closed, and if anything, Leigh's attempts to open it have been met with real resistance from her parents.

Then one day, the bottom falls out. Leigh's mother commits suicide. Although her depression always seemed a part of their lives the last several years, neither Leigh nor her father ever really thought this would happen. Leigh tries to figure out what signs she might have missed, what she could have done differently, while at the same time, she blames her father's withdrawal from their lives, his continual business travels, for leaving her mother so vulnerable.

In the days following her suicide, Leigh believes her mother keeps returning to her in the form of a beautiful red bird, but when she calls out to her, or asks her to stay, the bird flies away. What is her mother trying to tell her? What does she want Leigh to do?

"Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger."

As if all of that isn't complicated enough, Leigh must also face facts that on the day her mother killed herself, Leigh finally kissed Axel, her best friend and (perhaps not-so) secret crush. How can she reconcile those two events?

Her father finally relents and travels with Leigh to Taiwan so she can finally meet her maternal grandparents. There she hopes that she'll finally understand what her mother is trying to tell her, what she wants her to remember. As she begins to learn more about her mother and the reasons she closed herself and Leigh off from her heritage, she learns powerful lessons about the power of memory, loss, ghosts, and the connections of blood and friendship.

This is a beautiful, heartfelt, somewhat quirky book, which shifts between real and fantasy, present and past. At times it's necessary to suspend your disbelief, as Leigh is able to witness memories she never knew about (or, in some cases, wasn't alive for), and there's a lot of discussion about ghosts, as they're revered and feared in Taiwan. Additionally, being an artist, Leigh tends to reflect and explain moods in color, particularly unusual shades of color, so that may strike some as off-putting.

Those quirks aside, The Astonishing Color of After really is astonishing. Emily X.R. Pan captures teenage angst, grief, and fears perfectly, and the strange unevenness of family dynamics. This is a book that dazzled, lyrically and emotionally, as it made me tear up, which is always a fun thing to do on a plane ride! This may not be a book for everyone, but for those who decide to read it, I hope it paints a beautifully emotional portrait for you as well.

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