Leigh Chen Sanders’ vision is not an allegory. “This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap,” she says, matter-of-factly. “My mother. Is literally. A bird.”
Leigh’s candor, balanced with often surprising tenderness, sets the tone for “The Astonishing Color of After.” The poignant debut novel by Emily X.R. Pan tells the story of Leigh, a half-Taiwanese, half-Irish girl whose first kiss with her longtime best friend Axel shockingly coincides with her mother’s suicide. In the aftermath of this trauma, Leigh’s mother appears to her in the form of a red bird, delivering a strange gift that prompts Leigh to visit her maternal grandparents in Taiwan and delve into her family’s mysterious and troubled past. In a smartly crafted and heartbreaking story, Pan weaves the evocative tale of a girl whose journey to understand her mother bends time and space.
Though booksellers and librarians will inevitably shelve “The Astonishing Color of After” among other young adult novels, the scope of its themes—suicide, cultural identity, sexuality—evokes the gravitas of novels intended for much older demographics. Pan’s character casting is representation par excellence: The protagonist is a half-Taiwanese, half-Irish girl, joined by her half-Filipino, half-Puerto Rican best friend, and another friend who identifies as lesbian. Many young adult novels’ efforts to account for representation veer into polemics, each character becoming a caricature of their demographic, but representation in “The Astonishing Color of After” feels intentional, yet careful; accurate, yet not overly forceful. Much of the novel is set in Taiwan, which Pan paints lovingly with meticulous detail—the pungent smells of its night markets, its big yolk moons and salty comfort foods.
The trappings of Pan’s literary toolbox, too, evoke more established authors. The novel’s oscillation between past and present, noted in chapters titled “Smoke and Memories,” feels evocative of the temporal fragmentation in Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time,” a daring authorial decision that colors in missing context. It’s true that, at certain moments, Pan’s prose is heavy-handed, the last sentences of certain chapters failing to quite stick the landing (“I’m too pissed to say anything back. Nobody even says goodbye,” Leigh ends chapter 15 moodily). But what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up in emotional potency. The novel’s cutting portrayal of grief and mourning recalls the early chapters of “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer winner: “The mother-shaped hole became a cutout of the blackest black,” Pan writes. “I had to fight that emptiness, that absence of color.” In another scene, Leigh recalls watching her mother play piano at a choir concert. “[Music] was in her every breath, her every movement,” she remembers. “She was the color of home.”
For the burgeoning artist protagonist, color is the lingua franca, and the same can be said of Pan herself, whose painterly prose often evinces synesthesia. Indeed, ordinary language feels inadequate for a plot that quickly reveals itself to exhibit magical realism. The titular conceit allows Pan to enrich her prose with inventive metaphors. A front door slamming sounds “puke green.” When Leigh is nervous, her voice “comes out ash blue”; when she feels guilt, it “cuts through [her] chromium-oxide green.” Leigh and Axel communicate emotion through color—in lieu of “how are you?” or “how do you feel?” they ask each other, “What color?” expecting to understand the other’s emotion through color. “We’ve been best friends… long enough that that’s all we need,” Leigh explains the habit. “One color to describe a mood, a success, a failure, a wish.” It’s an apt portrayal of adolescent friendship (and romance), and fitting, too, that Pan pairs friendship with artistry. Both are kinds of the same intricate, intimate world that can only be understood from the inside.
Axel and Leigh’s relationship is touching, but the strongest moments of “The Astonishing Color of After” deal with Leigh and her quest to retroactively understand her mother, the exacting combing of her memory for signs and omens. Most impressive is Pan’s sensitive yet thorough attention to depression, and its irrevocable consequences for Leigh’s mother, a victim of—and Pan makes this very clear—a relentless illness, not a set of causes or circumstances. Leigh’s descriptions are haunting in their vicarious pain: “My mother’s expression didn’t change. Her eyes were sunken, haunted, like she hadn’t slept or seen the sun in days. Like someone had wrung the color out of her complexion.” And later: “Long before I lost my mother… Long before doctors put a label on her condition…Long before everything: She was already hurting.” Understanding that mental illness is rarely discussed and that therapy is rarely sought among Asian American populations, Pan’s elucidation of a mental illness, rather than a physical one, takes a special bravery. There’s little precedent for this story, which is all the more reason for its particular urgency. A reader won’t just see herself in this story—the novel is a mirror, but it is also a magnifying glass for everything that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
“The Astonishing Color of After” is a thoughtful exploration of defining and discovering identity—cultural, artistic, familial, and personal. It is a heart-rending story about what it means to recover from loss. But most of all, it is a clarion call to pay attention to the ones we love—to look for their true colors, and hope they can read ours, too.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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