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 Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo | Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published by Atria Books (2017)
Rating: ***** 

This is a fast book. This does not mean it’s a short read – the page count is 388 (hardcopy) and 304 (softcopy). It’s just an incredibly fast-paced book. Before reading the book, I saw a friend get consumed in it, and she described the writing as “incredibly engaging”, amongst other adjectives. 300-odd pages later, I do not disagree one bit. This is, far and away, one of the best pieces of fiction writing I have read.

The plot, at first glance, doesn’t spark any emotional reaction. It’s about an ageing former starlet, Evelyn Hugo, who, after years of being reticent with the media, decides to grant Vivant magazine an interview – specifically in the context of some dresses she’s auctioning off for charity. Her only condition is that Monique Grant, a relative unknown, is the reporter who interviews her. A few pages later, and Hugo reveals her ulterior motive in inviting Grant to her home – to give Grant the exclusive tell-all and the rights to publish an authorized biography once Hugo dies. What transpires is this narration of Hugo’s life, leading up to the present day. That, however, is barely scratching the surface of it. Through the recount, we explore all the romantic relationships Hugo has had, the headlines she dominated during her heydey, and, in bursts, Monique’s present-day life. Throughout, there’s a sense of foreshadowing that the two women are connected somehow, a reveal which marks a fitting conclusion to the book.

I’m going to review this systematically since a lot of it is very, very fresh in my memory at the moment.

First, the characters. Since a large part of the narration happens in a setting that is the late 60’s/70’s, it’s pretty amazing that Reid weaves in such large amounts of representation into the book, in terms of the communities across the sexuality spectrum that she is able to describe. What’s also phenomenal is the way she introduces and describes her characters. Every character is relevant, and Hugo, the protagonist, manages to have meaningful interactions with each of them – which plays a huge role in plot development, but also in terms of your understanding of context. Moreover, the characters are not one-dimensional. It’s very difficult to use one adjective to describe them, for example. Each character is layered, and their contribution to Hugo’s life is well-explained, in terms of how they affect her thinking, and what her emotions are.

A special paragraph is needed to talk about the two protagonists, if you will. Evelyn and Monique, the two characters whose interactions shape the entire plot are really different from each other. There is a gap both in economic stature and in confidence – a distinction Reid draws within the first 50 pages itself. It is this distinction that enables both ladies to learn from each other. While Evelyn takes on more of a mentor role, it becomes clear that at latter parts of the book, especially towards its conclusion – there are things that she’s picked up from how Monique has responded to the tell-all. Monique’s growth through the story is phenomenal. If Evelyn is the one who is being reflective and assessing her life, Monique learns how to change her life – in terms of being able to put herself and her emotions before others. That emotional growth and maturity is well-traced, and not knee-jerk. Reid’s exposition of Monique’s life is measured and does not feel out of place – which deserves special praise.

Second, the treatment of sexuality, and representation.  I’ve already spoken about how diverse the characters are. What demands more attention, however, is how well she’s able to treat sexuality in the context she sets out. There are several things about an individual’s identity and sexuality that are incredibly confusing to people today – in terms of people exploring their sexualities, or identifying a particular way. It sparks off a lot of conversation – and this is despite our generation being lucky enough to have a lot of information and lesser prejudice than earlier. Reid is able to trace what it would have been like in the late 1900’s, and she’s able to do this in two parts.

The first, is pre-Stonewall, where the story charts the sexuality of several characters and their attempts to keep it secret and conform to the heteronormative expectation that society has for them. There’s also a specific discussion in this time period about bisexuality and it’s misunderstanding – something that stood out in this book. Without spoiling too much, it’s interesting to see that members of the homosexual community themselves didn’t fully understand what being bisexual meant. This is well documented today, but the fact that Reid chooses to give a voice to a bisexual character, engage with the social conflicts the character faces is worth a lot of praise. The second time period the book engages with sexuality in is post-Stonewall, which is a little more liberal, but involves conversations that lead to definitive decisions about coming out.

Finally, Reid deserves congratulations for her construction of family and friendship. If anything, there is a lot of pain in this book. There’s a lot of love, a lot of loss, a bunch of conflict around identity, and a lot of tabloid gossip. Through the recount, Hugo builds up what her friendships did to her, and then descends into a tale of her family. Her relationship with her daughter is so profound and the reactions so natural that you’re on edge to find out how the daughter will grow up. Her narration of “family” breaks away from a lot of traditional notions, and her detailing of the platonic/romantic divide in Hugo’s life leaves you wondering how much of romance today is a socially constructed expectation. Atleast, I was. It makes you ponder about how romantic relationships are treated in society as automatically being a step-up from a platonic one, and how untrue that premise is in reality. There’s one quote about intimacy that particularly stands out to me – in terms of how, more than anything, it’s the ability to be true with someone.

What is touching is her development of Monique’s arc and Monique’s family, and I think the relationship of mother and daughter there is another highlight. Monique’s mother is inserted into the book in just the right places, something I absolutely adored.

I would only dock points for the fact that the book is not slightly longer, for I think the ending (the last 30 pages) were extremely rushed. There is a certain power to the voices, the characters, and the description that Reid is able to weave, one that will linger in my memory for a while. All in all, a fantastic read, well worth the time and investment.