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.
“There’s no point in wishing. We can’t change anything about the past. We can only remember. We can only move forward.”
What do you do when your mother is a bird, and nobody believes you?
Leigh’s mom committed suicide. She died, but she’s not fully dead because she’s a bird, a huge red bird. People are convinced that she’s making it up in her grief, but when the bird brings her a box telling her to go visit her mom’s parents in Taiwan, she knows that it’s real. And eventually she’s able to convince her dad to believe her too, and to send her to Taiwan to visit the grandparents she’s never met, knows nothing about, and discover her culture, her heritage, and uncover family secrets about who she is and try to learn what caused her mom to become the bird.
This is a really powerful and moving book about grief and depression, and how depression and suicide affects not just the person who has it, but everyone around them. Leigh’s voice was so pure and raw, and I could really feel her grief and emotions coming through the book. She’s such a strong character in wake of everything that has happened to her, and I really admired her for that. She has some flaws too, but she can really overcome them and grow, and I was so proud of her for it.
The book felt really slow in the beginning. It felt real, with Leigh’s grief in everything that was happening to her, but it also made me bored, and read this book much slower than I thought I would. However, it really picked up towards the end!
There were also many flashbacks throughout the book. Usually I kind of hate flashbacks, but they worked pretty well in this book. They told another full two stories–the story of Leigh back when her mom was still alive, and the story of Leigh’s family in Taiwan that she never knew about. They worked better than most flashbacks, but were still kind of annoying to me and slowed down the story.
The magical realism was a strong part of this book. Many parts of the book become impossible to distinguish what is real and what isn’t, which could get a bit frustrating for me because I like having something a little stronger to grasp on to, but I think it was still wonderfully done, and if you like magical realism, this book should be perfect.
There was also lots of fluffy purple prose full of metaphors, especially color metaphors. At times this could get a bit much and annoying, but for the most part, it worked really well with the air of magical realism in the story, and the feeling of it being not quite in this real world. The color metaphors also worked really well with the character of Leigh, who is an artist.
I loved how Leigh and her best friend Axel are both artists. I could vividly picture the art, be it drawing or music or any form of expression. This, too, really worked into the magical realism with a bit of feeling that Leigh lived in a world of colors and emotions instead of the cut and dry real world.
My favorite part of this book was, of course, the Taiwanese rep. Leigh if biracial with a Taiwanese mom and a white dad, and I am too, so I could really really relate to her, and honestly, Pan did an AMAZING job of capturing what that feels like. Being biracial, Leigh struggles with never fitting in–with being too exotic and Asian to fit in in America, and too foreign and white to fit in in Taiwan. She also experiences the struggle of having a language barrier between her and her family, and I love how she tries so much to be able to communicate with her grandparents and understand her culture, but can’t quite get there.
The story also had a wonderful setting of Taiwan. Leigh gets to see various parts of the country, such as Taipei 101 and markets. She also learns through the experiences of her older relatives some Taiwanese traditions. Beyond just Taiwan, there was also great diversity besides Leigh! Her best friend, Axel, is half Filipino, and there is also positive representation of two lesbian girls who are close friends with Leigh and Axel.
4 out of 5 colorful stars
You can also read my review on Goodreads here.