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.
The Astonishing Color of After is the kind of book that guts you, and buoys you, rips out your heart and gives it back somehow bigger. I’ve been putting off writing this review for many days, because the inside of me still clenches with the memory of what I’ve read, and I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to keep control of all my tethers long enough to articulate all that I’m feeling.
But, here we go.
So, what’s this book about?
Leigh’s first kiss with her best friend and first love, Axel, vanishes into the thickening dark of what follows: Leigh’s mother, Dory, has taken her life, and the way she’d left—no note, no explanation—had carved a space so deep Leigh got drawn down into it.
Leigh is still feeling the pull of her mother leaving, like a little of her had trailed after Dory, when a huge crimson bird calls out her name and Leigh knows it’s her mother, reincarnated. In the fragile hope of uncovering all the secrets her parents kept stacked around the house like bricks in a wall, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her estranged maternal grandparents, and with the aid of the bird and a box of magical incense that brings forth vivid illusions, Leigh sifts through a kaleidoscope of spliced memories, trying to find the moment everything had shifted, the rip that tore her family’s foundation apart.
“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 dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger. At some point, my mother slid so off track she sank into hues of gray, a world drawn only in shadows.”
The experience of sitting with this book, sinking into it, aching along with Leigh as her voice gives up the grief she’d folded inside her, as the loss breaks and punctures and shapes and sutures her back together, was wonderful, painful and moving.
To read The Astonishing Color of After felt like a privilege and a gift. This is a book written with a complex beauty—it plays with colors and turns to poetry as its muse. I relished the way Emily X.R. Pan told the story of Leigh. The prose is so startlingly gorgeous that reading descriptions never left like work—her words sometimes a sharp blade, sometimes a soothing tea, or a Pandora’s box. And I found myself so awed by individual pages, underlining and pondering passages, reading them again and again to savor them and roll them around in my mind.
But the marvel of this book was how it made me turn back through things I knew but hadn’t thought of in so long. I couldn’t tell if I was reading words someone else has written or if they were getting ripped out of me. I’m quite frankly still trying to pull myself out of the feeling that there were pieces of me left in this book.
Pan shines a light on the dustless, unfaded patches the loss of a loved one leaves behind. She doesn’t shy away from the empty places where everything Leigh had lost once fit. Leigh’s heart lived deep in her mother’s rib cage, and in the wake of her suicide, so many questions sat burning on the back of Leigh’s tongue, ready to spew into the world—questions that were only stray threads, frayed from Leigh going over them so many times: Did we love her wrong? Who was at fault? How did we fail her? What makes a person so fiercely loved want to die? Leigh’s voice had its own weight, and her loss had enough gravity to wear both of us down.
But Pan doesn’t play at victim-blaming, instead we get a raw, unflinching take on what it’s like to live with mental illness and how hard it is to explain it to friends and family. She draws the reader into Dory’s mental state with such intensity that it becomes tangibly real, yet she doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyse her either. This book shows you that there’s no step-by-step guide to understanding mental illness, nothing as simple that could be memorized. How can you explain that sometimes your own mind is a place you’re afraid to be caught in after dark? How can you articulate that you’ve collected so many other ways of being broken that you can only carry them for so long?
But it’s important to have that conversation. It’s important that we talk about it, all of it—the hurt, the triumphs, the failures. We can’t let the stigma swallow every slice of light and give depth to the darkness. “The stigma can and does kill. That stigma is perpetuated by not talking,” Pan says in her author’s note. We need to talk about these things, so that we no longer feel alone. The hardest part about mental illness, in my experience, is feeling like I’m alone. But I’m not, and I promise, neither are you.
Leigh’s journey is as much about understanding her mother and her family as it is about understanding herself. She incorporated so many new revelations about her history into the anthology of herself and the deeper she dug, the deeper she delved into herself, and the more shocking a relief is the first unfurling of her healing.
Leigh decides she is done letting people determine which world she belongs to—she is as much Taiwanese as she is American, and she feels the truth of it through her. She also confronts her distant father and reproaches him for his absences when she needed him the most, and together they decide they will make do with the broken bits of themselves that Dory has left behind, they’ll jigsaw them together however they can, they will come together again on the other side of their grief and reclaim a new shape for their lives.
The Astonishing Color of After is a bold and illuminating story that affected me so deeply and still lights up my insides hope. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
“We’re not lost. We’re just headed somewhere different.”
TRIGGER WARNINGS: suicide, depression, loss of a loved one, depiction of grief, abandonment, racial slurs, and mention of electroconvulsive therapy. Please make sure you’re in a good mental spot before you pick up this book.