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

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published March 20th 2018 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Publisher

“Leigh,” said the bird.

I would have known that voice anywhere. That was the voice that used to ask if i wanted a glass of water after a good cry, or volunteer to drive to the art store. It was a yellow voice, knit from bright and melodic syllables, and it was coming from the beak of this red creature.

Leigh Chen Sanders loses her mother in the worst way possible. While she is reeling from the grief, she starts getting haunted by a red bird who speaks to her in a voice that she recognizes as her mother. Her mother wants her to remember something–there is even a box that mysteriously appears in front of her. The bird–and Leigh is aware how that sounds–seems to want her to go to Taiwan, the country her mother was from and where the grandparents she doesn’t know still live. 

Convincing her father seems to be impossible but a mysterious incident with the bird and a lot of feathers does the trick. Leigh flees home and her unresolved relationship with a boy who used to be her best friend for Taiwan. She needs to find the bird who is her mother and ask her some questions and get some answers.

The Astonishing Color of After mixes magical elements with prosaic ones to create something that is sincere and hurting but not without threads of hope. Leigh’s grief is complex and layered; I appreciated that I was never told how she felt but left to feel the things she did. Leigh’s insomnia, her shattered feeling is juxtaposed really beautifully with the slower life of her grandparents whom she doesn’t know but is learning to love. Pan’s prose wraps like gossamer around the reader as she directs us, through Leigh, around a Taiwan we will not see in travel documentaries. Leigh’s search for her mother in the places her mother loved the most is poignant–it sort of feels like a little girl trying to walk in her mother’s shoes except her mother is no longer there. 

What I really loved, though, were the walks Leigh takes with her Waigong, her grandfather. The scenes are constructed with grace and subtlety that render them profound. 

The book is ultimately about grief and letting go, about family and finding the things that connect you even when blood doesn’t–and especially when blood does. Pan does a wondrous job of portraying what it feels like to live with someone who suffers from a mental illness without demonizing the parents or the illness. The stark honesty and authenticity of the emotions she handles so beautifully in The Astonishing Color of After will leave you holding the book close for a second read sometime in the future because this book is not one you read only once. Strongly recommended.

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 of dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger.

At some point, my mother slid so off track she sank into a hues of gray, a world drawn only in shadows.