I checked out The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan from the library last summer and it was still sitting on my shelf when my father died. At that point, I knew that I could not read that book. Not then. So, while I was still home with my mom and sister, I had my husband return it along with all my other library books.
Later, when I was starting to do my own writing about grief, I added it back to my reading list. I am so glad I did. The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful book about the raw, unmooring experience of grieving a parent, and about how much we don’t know about our parents, even when we are close to them.
In the novel, after her mother commits suicide, Leigh believes that she has come back as a big red bird. She follows the bird on a journey to Taiwan, her mother’s birthplace, where she meets her grandparents for the first time and tries to learn what the bird is trying to teach her before the end of the traditional Ghost Month. Throughout the story, Leigh uses colors to describe emotions and her art as a way to process her grief. Meanwhile, she is also in conflict with her father, who does not believe she is handling her grief well and also thinks she should be pursuing something more practical than art. There is also a plot involving Leigh’s potentially unrequited love for her best friend, Axel.
Although sometimes young and naive in a way that is usual for a young adult novel, in many ways The Astonishing Color of After is a very mature book. Pan handles issues of mental health, grief, and familial love with nuance and insight. The story is moving and I was very much affected by how she depicts Leigh feeling unsettled and ungrounded after the death of their mother. The sudden death of a parent can be very traumatic and she is sensitive to that as well as to the clinical depression that Leigh’s mother experienced. Additionally, I learned quite a bit about Taiwanese culture through Leigh’s travels as she herself has a lot to learn.
This novel is quite an achievement, in my opinion, it manages to be both mature and insightful and creative and youthful all in one compelling story, complete with some twists at the end.