The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.

The White Castle | Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Victoria Holbrook
Published by Faber and Faber (2000)
Rating: **** 

This was my first Orhan Pamuk novel. Unsurprisingly, it’s his shortest novel, so it was a great place to begin reading all of his work. Pamuk is an author I have heard several literature geeks tell me about, but not someone I have been able to sit down and read. Pamuk, therefore, topped my list of authors for the year.

This is Pamuk’s first translated work. The translation here deserves credit, for it appears as if the novel is written in English itself – with details so vivid and flow so undisturbed. One wonders what the Turkish version of the book reads like.

The story begins as a straightforward first-person narrative about the misfortunes of a young Italian scholar who, en route from his native Venice to Naples sometime in the 17th century, is captured by Turkish pirates. Brought to Istanbul, he is imprisoned. Having convinced his captors that he was trained in Italy as a doctor, he finds himself called upon to heal everyone from fellow prisoners to a pasha. A man of high intelligence and common sense, he manages in most cases to effect a cure. Slowly, he wins the admiration of the pasha, who presents him as a slave to his friend, an eccentric scientist called only Hoja, a word, he tells us, meaning “master.”

The narrator appears wholly taken by the resemblance between himself and Hoja, a resemblance Hoja appears to ignore. Hoja, as master, commands the narrator to teach him everything he knows from the West – the science, the philosophy.

After a decade, Hoja and the narrator lay bare their past by writing the stories of their lives for each other to read. This exercise leads to both characters, who are entirely identical in appearance, who adopt the mannerisms of the other.

One day the bubonic plague overwhelms Istanbul. Eager to gain further power at court, Hoja conspires with his double to think of ways of reducing the risk of plague through the exercise of Western hygiene. Cats, for instance, are brought in to get rid of the rats that infest the city, although the sultan is told that these rats are really Satan in disguise. The scheme works, and the plague is banished – Hoja is elevated to Imperial Astrologer.

One of Hoja’s enduring obsessions has been the construction of an ultimate weapon — a “war engine” to rout the sultan’s enemies. The sultan now grants Hoja the necessary funds to pursue his hobbyhorse. Some years later, when a war between the Turks and the Poles erupts, Hoja’s expensive and ridiculous cannon is called into action to help in the assault on a glittering fortress in the Carpathian Mountains, the “white castle” of the book’s title. Alas, it can only fail. Hoja knows this, and he escapes from the battle into the fog rather than risk beheading by an irate sultan. In fact, Hoja leaves the sultan’s realm altogether and goes to Venice, to resume there the life of his Italian double, and his slave takes over Hoja’s life as a Turkish sage.

It is at this juncture, that Hoja introduces plot twists and brings into question the identity of the narrator. By the end of the book, you’re left uncertain about who the narrator actually was, and whether or not there were two characters at all.

In this act, lies Pamuk’s greatest triumph. The tale is really simple, the plot development rapid, and the prose, flowing. The twist at the end, however, is sufficient to keep you awake all night. It points at a fundamental question about human nature and human identities – the struggle of understanding oneself. By questioning who the narrator actually is, Pamuk makes you wonder: Why are you who you are? What shapes you? What is your motivation? What is your desire?

These existential questions may not be for all readers. They may also not arise to everyone who reads the book. For example, an alternate interpretation of the book would allow you to ask the question: Does slavery and captivity drive one insane?

Another alternate interpretation would make question the institution of religion and the concept of a value-system.

Whatever questions Pamuk leaves you with, it appears he does so without force. His words don’t point you to definitive answers, nor to mandatory questions. The ease of his narration, and the detail of the characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable, fast-paced read.

A star was docked for the ending. To me, it felt unfinished and incomplete. If this was a deliberate measure, it is one I am yet to fully appreciate. All I know is that I’m going to be reading a lot more of Pamuk, because I’m intrigued by the manner in which he weaves his tales.

Pachinko|Min Jin Lee

Pachinko,
by Min Jin Lee
Published by Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Min Jin Lee’s novel traces a single Korean family through multiple generations across the 1900’s. Without an individual protagonist or a singular plot, the novel is filled with characters, who navigate periods of immense sorrow and joy in annexed Korea, and subsequently, in Japan an adopted homeland that refuses to accept them. The book tests your understanding of several themes, including faith and family.

The thrust of the novel comes from a perplexing loss of identity – a natural consequence of being colonized. Being tagged as Korean under a Japanese Empire means very little, and being a woman under such an Empire brings with it, it’s own set of limitations and societal obligations.

The first chapter is perhaps the best insight into what the novel is going to become. Characters are introduced rapidly, with physical description and dialogue providing the most insight into their behaviour, and the plot moves incredibly smoothly. Sunja is introduced as Hoonie’s daughter – her own identity only beginning to develop once her father passes away, and thus begins a moving saga of a largely ignored historical arc.

Sunja’s unplanned pregnancy sees her combatting her understanding of love, and what relationships mean, at a very young age. At the verge of bringing shame upon her family, already within the lower echelons of society as a consequence of being Korean, she is rescued by a Minister, who offers to marry her. It is at this point that Sunja moves from being Hoonie’s daughter, to becoming a subsequently, a mother, and subsequently Baek Isak’s wife.

As religion is explored through Baek’s understanding of God and what Christianity means, death begins to appear as a recurring occurrence, with Korean families scrambling to stay alive, and getting drafted to serve the Emperor, only to lose their lives on the battlefield. Internally, societal conflict results in death as a result of expressing yourself. Under an Emperor, having an opinion is absurd and a social evil, and you realize, through Yoseb, that suppressed emotions lead to slow, decaying madness.

Shame and guilt underpin many of the finest scenes in the novel, with every character continually forced by their position as second-class citizens to make painful sacrifices, and, consequently, to consider the nature of those sacrifices, and whether they’re worth being made. This continues down to Noa, who leaves his family to start afresh, and Solomon, who is forced to break off a relationship on the same day he is fired.

At all points, however, Pachinko is what appears to tie each character’s narrative together. As a mechanical gambling game that originates in Japan, the Koreans find refuge in running parlours for the rich Japanese, earning their livelihoods from the same business. Noa’s character is the only Korean to reach University, but he gives up on his education, and finds himself running books in a Pachinko parlour, the same thing his uneducated half-brother does, and Pachinko seems to be the ceiling at which Koreans reach.

The novel exemplifies historical research. Lee’s language crafts 20th-century Korea and the sights and smells of the shabby Korean township of Ikaino in Osaka as if you walked down the streets yourself. As a multi-generational novel, age gaps and cultural shifts are extremely well presented, and the novel gets you to think about immigrants in East Asia by presenting Oriental History without a Western skew.

All in all, my 2018 Reading has started off well. This one’s a must-read.