Book Review: The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan

Friday, April 27, 2018

Title: The Astonishing Colour of After
Author: Emily X. R. Pan
Publication Date: March 22nd 2018

Synopsis: "When Leigh's mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note - I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn't understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel - if only she hadn't kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest...

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family's secrets.

To remember."

My thoughts: This was sent to me unsolicited, so I was a little wary, but as soon as I read the first page I was absolutely overtaken by the beauty of Pan's prose, the tragedy of loss and grief, and the sensitive way in which mental illness is handled in this book (and by that, I mean that this book does not say that mental illness has a single 'cure' or that it is caused by any one thing).

The Astonishing Colour of After is a beautiful, lyrical book which draws you in, holds you there, and gently carries you through Leigh's experience of loss and her attempt to understand the catastrophic loss of her mother to suicide. It shows flashbacks of her trying to understand her mother's good and bad days, and her desire to just survive herself. It looks at family, love, and links that feel unbreakable but can be damaged so easily. It looks at the different ways people handle grief, communication between family members (and the inevitable miscommunication, not just in language but in expectations), and how we can think we know everything about someone but really we only know about a tenth of them, and they are changing all the time. You would think that with all this packed in (and more), this book would feel awkward and the prose unwieldy, but it is masterfully done by Pan, and you can't help but just sink into it.

The characters are fantastic and felt real to me - something that I think is really hard to do, particularly in YA. Leigh is a flawed, creative, complex individual, just trying to survive high school. Her best friend, Axel, is very similar, and it is really interesting to see how their characters are also different because of their family lives and basic outlooks. Leigh's mum - a character mostly created from memory and through elements of magical realism - feels distant at times and oh so close at others, something that, for me, represented the peaks and valleys of mental illness, and depression in particular. The introduction of Taiwanese culture into the mix just adds a layer of interest and wonder, making for an extremely wonderful and yet heart-wrenching reading experience.

While I did feel that part of the ending was a little too picture perfect for me, I had a fantastic experience reading this and actually really want to read it again already, to see if I missed anything in my haste to devour this book whole.
I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Trigger warnings for suicide, depression/depressive episodes.

{I received an unsolicited copy of this book from Hachette. Thank you!!}

A favourite line from the book: 'Whose fault was it? That's the question on everyone's mind, isn't it? Nobody will ever say it out loud. It's a question people would call inappropriate. The kind of thing where everyone tells you, "It's nobody's fault." But is that even true? It's only human nature to look for a place to lay the blame. Our fingers are more than ready to do the pointing, but it's like we're all blindfolded and spinning.
What makes a person want to die?'

You would like this book if: You love books that explore mental illness, culture, magical realism, love, and family, and so many other things and does it well.

Tea to drink while reading this book: Some lovely oolong would complete the experience well, I think.

Rating:  10/10

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