Tuesday, 10 April 2018

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

The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. PanNetGalleyThe Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan (eProof) - Leigh Chen Sanders is sixteen when her mother dies by suicide, leaving only a scribbled note: 'I want you to remember'. Leigh doesn't know what it means, but when a red bird appears with a message, she finds herself travelling to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Leigh is far away from home and far away from Axel, her best friend, who she stupidly kissed on the night her mother died - leaving her with a swell of guilt that she wasn't home, and a heavy heart, thinking she may have destroyed the one good thing left in her life.

Overwhelmed by grief and the burden of fulfilling her mother's last wish, Leigh retreats into her art and into her memories, where colours collide and the rules of reality are broken. The only thing Leigh is certain about is that she must find out the truth. She must remember.

With lyrical prose and magical elements, Emily X.R. Pan's stunning debut novel alternates between past and present, romance and despair, as one girl attempts to find herself through family history, art, friendship, and love.
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features suicide, though not on the page.

I really don't know what to say about The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan. It's difficult trying to put my feelings into words. This book is absolutely incredible; it's so beautiful, but also so unbelievably moving.

When her mum dies by suicide, Leigh is distraught. Especially as she wasn't home that night, but instead kissing her best friend Axel. Leigh wants to do as her mum asked in her suicide note - "I want you to remember" - but she doesn't know what she means. Remember what? When a huge red bird turns up on her doorstep, speaking with her mother's voice, she knows her mum has transformed into a bird. With the bird telling her she must go to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time, she can do nothing but do as her mum wishes, knowing the answers she seeks will be there. Memories engulf her in Taiwan, both her own and those of others, and through visiting all her mum's favourite places, she's learning about who her mum was before she became her mum. But she learns of the Buddhist belief that after a person dies, their spirit resides for 49 days to let go of the those things which tie them to their life before rebirth, and there isn't much time left - will she figure out what her mum want her to know before the red bird disappears for good?

The Astonishing Colour of After is a story of love, grief, family and identity, and is told through the present, through Leigh's own flashbacks, and through the memories of others. Leigh has never been to Taiwan, she has never met her maternal grandparents, and she doesn't know why. Her mother would refuse to talk about them or her life back in Taiwan. But now her mum, as the red bird, has told her she needs to go to Taiwan. While she's grieving and trying to fulfil her mother's wishes, she's learning about herself through family history. Leigh is biracial; half-Taiwanese, half-white-American, but has always been cut off from her Taiwanese heritage because of her mother's refusal to talk about her parents or her time in Taiwan. Now, with her grandparents - her Waipo (grandmother) and Waigong (grandfather) - and family friend Feng, Leigh is learning about life in Taiwan, her family, their beliefs, and her culture; through food, and visiting temples, and learning about Ghost Month.

There is something really quite beautiful about how Pan weaves together Buddhist beliefs and magical realism in this story. As I said in my description, Buddhists believe that after a person dies, their spirit is remains for 49 days before making the transition into rebirth, and this is why Leigh's mum is still around in the form of a red bird. At first, I just thought it was magical realism, but when Leigh visits a Buddhist temple with her Waipo and Feng, she learns about this belief, and understands why her mum is still around. But she still has to learn - remember - what her mum wanted, and the magical realism takes a different path; as well as her thinking back over her own memories in the form of flashbacks, she is able to access the memories of others; her mother's memories, her father's, her Waipo's, her Waigong's - her grandfather. It's through these memories, over time, that she comes to learn about her family's history; how everyone came to live the lives they live, why there was this breach between her mum and her grandparents. She also learns about her mum's depression.

Because her mum didn't just die, she died by suicide. Through Leigh's own memories and the memories of others, we learn about this woman, Dory, who, when doing ok, was light and joy and full of love, but who also struggled with very severe depression. We know from the beginning that Leigh feels guilty for kissing her best friend while her mum was dying, how if she was at home she feels she might have saved her. But we come to stand just how heavy that guilt is as we learn about the past, and see just how her mum struggled. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see Leigh not knowing how to help her mum, and to see, through her own memories, how fast and hard Dory was sinking. There's a moment in the book when we get to fully understand exactly what Dory was going through, and it broke me. But there is hope. Hope and peace are found despite grief, and I guess, in a way, it's found through faith. What Leigh has learnt, through her family and her time in Taiwan, about Buddhist beliefs helps her - and there's never any doubt that her mum is a bird, so those beliefs ring true.

The Astonishing Colour of After is a quiet, heartbreaking, but hopeful and overwhelmingly beautiful story that is going to stay with me for such a long time. It's masterfully told, with such gorgeous writing and stunning imagery. This book is absolutely exquisite, and in Pan I have found a new favourite author. I cannot wait to see what Pan shares with us next.

Thank you to Orion Children's Books via NetGalley for the eProof.

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Published: 22nd March 2018
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
Emily X. R. Pan's Website

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2 comments:

  1. So glad you liked this so much. I just got it from the library. Now I can't wait to read it.

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  2. One of my most anticipated 2018 releases! I cannot wait to read this once I get the money to buy it! Glad you enjoyed it so much! Have a great day!

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