“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.”
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut novel ‘The Astonishing Colour of After’ is a poignant and somewhat heavy own- voices novel that respectfully deals with topics of mental health, family, grief, identity and love. The novel follows Leigh as she undergoes a journey in which she attempts to understand not only her family but also herself after the loss of her mother to suicide. This leads her to Taiwan, where she stays with her estranged grandparents, all the while trying to uncover her family history in an attempt to understand why her mother did what she did. Pan’s approach to these serious topics was incredibly sensitive but also brutal where it needed to be, and I fell in love with this novel and all of the characters!
One of the novel’s core focuses is upon mental health, and this is a topic that Pan explores considerately and sensitively through the character of Dory. Pan successfully creates a story about a woman with depression without romanticizing or stigmatizing mental illness, this being achieved in part through her structural choices. In the decision to tell the story in the form of three timelines, pan is able to simultaneously explore the grief caused by Dory’s loss while also exploring her past. This allows for a realistic and heartbreaking narrative about how depression can impact people, and makes for a truly impactful and important story, especially since it is a part of the YA genre.
The topics of grief and identity are also widely explored in this novel through the character of Leigh. This is a character that loses her mother to suicide, and the subsequent grief she experiences sends her on a journey in which she desperately tries to grapple with her family’s past in an attempt to understand the reason behind her mother’s decision to take her life. Through this journey we see her not only come to terms with her loss, but also her identity. We see her reconnect with her estranged grandparents and eventually her absent father, making family another topic that is key to this story. Alongside making these re- connections, Leigh has to face issues with her identity in regards to feeling distant from her heritage and culture. Since she is more white passing than the majority of people she encounters when in Taiwan, she feels that she struggles to fit in. Her journey here is important, and Pan executes this brilliantly.
Another way in which Leigh feels she has to discover herself is with regard to her art and the future it may hold for her. Pan creates a sense that art and creativity is something central to this character through her prose. Colour imagery is woven perfectly throughout her prose, and is used as a means of Leigh coming to terms with and understanding the emotions that she feels. This is a linguistic decision that effectively aided the later implementation of magical realism seen in Leigh’s belief that the large red bird is her mother. This magical realism is subtle and does nothing to confuse the reader or the plot, and served only to create a poignant and beautifully written narrative that quickly became an all- time favorite.
Furthermore, the dynamics between the characters in this novel were brilliantly written. The relationships created between Leigh and her previously estranged family were incredibly important to Leigh’s journey regarding her identity, and similarly her relationship with Axel also helped her to gain a grasp on a different part of her identity. The developing relationship between the two childhood friends was weaved into the story perfectly, and rather than interrupting the narrative it aided it as it helped the reader to understand the complexity of understanding one’s identity. Pan really seemed to have a talent here, making for an extremely impressive debut novel, and one that will forever have a place in my heart!
Overall, I loved this novel. It was poignant and heartbreaking, but also hopeful and beautifully written. It is heavy, but it has to be heavy. It deals with mental illness, grief and loss, and it is done gracefully. This was a wonderful first novel from Pan, and I cannot wait to read more of her work in future.
“It’s okay to be afraid. But not okay if be afraid means you do nothing. You must not do nothing. That’s not life worth living.”