The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, confronts loss and grief alongside the struggles of growing up and finding one’s identity. The narrator, Leigh Chen Sanders, considers herself first and foremost an artist, a friend to Axel and Caro, and, lastly, a daughter to an American father and a Taiwanese mother. When her mother commits suicide, Leigh travels to Taiwan where she meets her estranged grandparents and experiences a part of her heritage she has never known. On her journey, she discovers more about her mother, her family, and herself.
A deep and creative thinker, Leigh expresses her emotions in the way she feels most comfortable: through color. Her narration is poetic and laced with effortless similes and metaphors that flow off the page like water. When Leigh is visited by a gigantic, colorful bird that she declares to be her mother, it is easy to dismiss her revelation as metaphorical. But as stranger events start occurring, the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Not everything is as it seems.
Moments of magical realism shock the reader out of complacency, particularly as they precede much anticipated glances into Leigh’s family history. The magical elements are also heavily influenced by Taiwanese culture. Pan explains these traditions thoroughly, teaching Leigh, as well as the reader, valuable information about the country and its people. The events of the novel take place during the Ghost Festival, which seems appropriate, albeit somewhat heavy-handed, in light of the subject matter.
Memory plays an important role in the plot. Leigh gains a greater understanding of her extended family through flashback chapters. Her family members come alive on the page through their interactions, eccentricities, and their inevitable choices. Relationships are written with such care and attention that it is painful when they fall apart. Viewing the flashbacks through Leigh’s eyes also provides a greater understanding of her perspective, as well as her growth as a character.
Pan addresses the tough topics of depression and suicide respectfully, yet unflinchingly. She portrays depression as it is: a mental illness, not a choice. Leigh’s confusion and anger, as well as her father’s deep sorrow and detachment, are depicted delicately. It is all painfully realistic, and is ultimately a powerful statement on how suicide affects those who are left behind.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan is an impressive debut novel that takes a devastating loss and transforms it into an enchanting, heartbreaking, and insightful glimpse into the power of family and memory.