“My mother is a bird.
And I am only a girl.”
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 Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
CW: suicide, loss of a loved one, racism, nudity, smoking, underage drinking
Every now and then, you encounter a book that stuns you, one that begs you to stop and think before you begin a review. It’s books like these that remind me why I love to curl up and read after a long day, and The Astonishing Color of After fits the bill to a T.
I will warn you now that it’s hardly a light read. It follows Leigh Chen Sanders in the wake of her mother’s suicide, trying to navigate her family history (particularly the history in Taiwan that her mother kept from her), her feelings for the boy she was kissing while her mother was dying at home, and all the painful ins and outs of grief and tragedy.
While the summary may as if TACoA romanticizes suicide, the content does just the opposite, handling the subject with a gentle and empathetic touch. Not only is Leigh’s mother, Dory, show through flashbacks as a multi-faceted individual who was suffering, but we see the good and bad of Leigh’s family as they grapple with life without Dory.
The characters really are the heart of the story, too. We mostly see Leigh, of course, since the story unfolds largely in the first person, and she is caught between grief, artistic ambition, insecurity in being biracial but unconnected to her mother’s side of the family and unable to speak fluent Mandarin, and fear regarding the feelings she has for her love interest. She’s sixteen and it shows in the most wonderful ways. She isn’t perfect. Sometimes, she lashes out, or she withdraws. Other times, we get to see her engaging in creative, meaningful friendships with people who clearly want to support her and see her thrive. Axel shares her artistic inclinations, with a specialization in watercolors and music, while Caro loves photography, especially photography of her girlfriend, Cheslin. Her friends are there for her in all things, artistic or emotional.
And not only that, but they’re full characters in their own right. Axel is a Filipino-Puerto Rican boy raised by his dad and aunt after his mom walked out, and he’s not only a kind friend, but a teenage boy who makes mistakes in his relationships, romantic and platonic. Meanwhile, Caro is a queer girl with a supportive family, raised by a single mom. While she and Axel aren’t front and center in the narrative, they were welcome additions to the story, never once boring me.
Leigh’s family is even more complex, too. From her mother’s hidden history in Taiwan and her battle with depression, to her father’s shifts between supportive and rather insensitive, and even to her grandparents in Taiwan trying to connecting with a granddaughter they’ve never met in person until after their daughter’s death, each member of the cast is grappling with their own sorrows and joys in ways that are entirely human. There’s pride and regret, love and loss, and everyone’s stories are beautifully intertwined.
And all this is even before touching on the plot and prose! Some folks might find the prose a bit purple and contrived, but I found it fitting for a story with such powerful elements of magical realism and such intense emotion. In fact, it gives most chapters the air of a vignette, and in turn, the whole novel feels stitched together with a sinuous, elegant thread.
As for the plot, I was incredibly impressed by Emily Pan’s ability to weave between past and present while balancing so much raw emotion. Normally, I’m not one for crying while I read, but TACoA had me in tears through the final stretch, big cathartic tears that felt all too fitting. Leigh’s search for her mother-turned-bird, her growing connection with her waipo and waigong, her resolution with her father, and her relationship with Axel all came to a close in ways that felt like a relief, like a fresh start without erasing the past. There is forgiveness without forgetfulness, in a way, such a human sort of resolution to it all.
If you are in the headspace to read The Astonishing Color of After, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s haunting and heartbreaking and touched with a glimmer of hope that makes it worth every one of the five stars I’ve rated it. And to cap it off, it includes a list of resources to reach out to regarding suicide (at least in the ebook; I can’t personally vouch for physical copies), a choice I think is wonderfully empathetic and responsible given the subject matter.
Please read TACoA if you can. I hope you feel as strongly about it as I do.