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