Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Colour of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
AUTHOR: Emily X.R. Pan
REPRESENTATION: depression, suicide, loss of a parent, and LGBTQ+ (side character)
TRIGGER WARNINGS: depression, suicide, loss of a parent, and mentions of electroconvulsive therapy
In many cultures, suicide is a taboo. Only in the last few years have we started to break down the stigma associated with suicide. As a result of the taboo, there are still many misconceptions, misinformation, and ignorance where suicide is concerned. When the subject is tackled in modern media, it is either done extremely tactfully and handled with the sensitivity and care it deserves, or it contributes towards the stigma we already see so much of by being distastefully executed. The Astonishing Colour of After is a book that challenges the cultural stigma on suicide, as well as portraying the raw grief and devastation that comes from losing a parent with a mental illness.
The Astonishing Colour of After follows Leigh Chen Sanders, who lives with her Taiwanese mother and American father. Leigh is a regular teenage girl attempting to discover who she is and exploring her feelings for her best friend. Then her mother dies. Suicide. As if losing her mother wasn’t enough, Leigh must also deal with the fact that her mother left no note or explanation as to why she ended her life. Leigh and her father are left to their own devices to find sense in a senseless tragedy. Her mother’s death leaves Leigh wondering whether she’d loved her mother enough or had somehow failed her as a daughter.
‘Once upon a time we’d been an almost perfect family. I wish we could rewind, go back to live in those years forever.’
There was no victim blaming in The Astonishing Colour of After. Nor did it focus on the suicide itself, but rather on the grieving process and how Leigh comes to terms with living in a world without her mother. Pan has a very beautifully poetic way of writing that didn’t glamorise the act of suicide. Pan did not try to make depression out to be seen as something to be admired in a beautifully tragic way. There are moments in the book that mention the treatments Dory experienced to treat her depression but Pan does not treat it as a ‘quick fix’ or a ‘fix-all’. Depression is very real and it’s not something that can be cured overnight. Sometimes, all you can do is manage it. Depression is much more complicated than simply being sad, and I’m grateful for the way Pan portrayed it.
‘Here is my mother, with wings instead of hands, and feathers instead of hair. Here is my mother, the reddest of brilliant reds, the color of my love and my fear, all of my fiercest feelings trailing after her in the sky like the tail of a comet.’
Not long after losing her mother, Leigh is convinced Dory has turned into a bird that’s trying to communicate with her. This is a magical realism book. It was slightly jarring to read at the beginning, but it suited the content extremely well. Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents and to connect with a culture she knows nothing about – a culture her mother was born, raised, and fled for a life in America, in an effort to try and understand who her mother was and what shaped her into the person she became. In the midst of her grieving, Leigh finds herself on a journey of self-discovery; she is learning who she is, as a Taiwanese American, and learns that she doesn’t have to be one or the other. She can just be. It’s a journey of self-reflection, discovery, and of claiming her identity.
This book is not an easy read. Pan’s debut novel is emotionally-charged, beautifully written, and extremely poignant. If you feel confident you can tackle the hard-hitting subject matter without it negatively affecting your mental health, then please pick this up. Journey with Leigh and her extraordinary mother as they navigate through a sea of mental illness, grief, and discovery.
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