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.
This book was sent to me by Pan Macmillan South Africa, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Big thanks to Pan Macmillan for the opportunity to read this!
Disclaimer: this is a spoilery review.
Okay everyone, buckle your seatbelts and tighten your ponytails because it’s #UnpopularOpinion time and it’s about to get wild. I feel like I must be the only person on God’s green Earth that did not love this book. Granted, I didn’t hate it either. The Astonishing Colour of After handles some incredibly important topics and does so very respectfully, but there were some aspects of this book that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
What I Didn’t Love
First things first, the main character irked me very slightly. I’m going to resign this to a “it’s not you it’s me” situation because I just couldn’t relate to Leigh. Maybe this is because I’m not biracial? Maybe because it’s because she’s too young (around the age of sixteen), though this has never been a problem for me reading YA before. I just found her slightly whiny and immature.
Leigh’s dad is another character that I wasn’t a fan of. And by that, I mean I hatedhim. He’s not just unsupportive of his daughter’s passion for art, he’s flat out disrespectful towards it. On top of this, he treats Leigh like a child whose feelings and opinions simply don’t matter when it comes to him and his “big people’s problems”. The way he ships her off to camp without discussing it with her first, whilst also LYING to her about her mother’s condition and treatment is absolutely appalling. Leigh might be young, but as a teenager she is certainly old enough to be kept in the loop regarding her mother’s depression, and her father treating her like a child and forcing her to do things she doesn’t want to do (without providing her with a valid reason) is simply not on. Yes, granted, in the end he changes his tune and offers to go with Leigh to her art exhibition in Berlin, but I hold grudges.
Another thing that bothered me was how disjointed this book was. The story flips between Leigh’s present, her own memories and other people’s memories which Leigh experiences through visions – jumpstarted by lighting special incense sticks that the big red bird, which is actually her dead mother, gave to her (this in itself is a massive wtf for me). It felt jumpy and confusing and every time I picked up this book I had to sit for a minute and try to figure out where in the story I was and what the heck was going on.
On top of this, I’m not an artist – I don’t think in colours and the way Leigh labels all her emotions with colours was just too much for me. As a literary device this had potential, but it felt clumsy and honestly didn’t do much for me in terms of understanding what was going on in Leigh’s head. What is “my voice came out all ultramarine” even supposed to mean?
Overall, I just didn’t getthis book. The magical realism was strange and nonsensical and, in my opinion, distracted from the actual themes this novel was trying to discuss. The big red bird and the weird visions and the disappearing of Feng did nothing to add to the actual story of Leigh trying to understand her mother’s depression and then come to terms with her suicide. The magical elements felt clumsily integrated and out of place in a very serious and significant story.
Side note, and this is just me nitpicking – but who the hell still communicates via email in 2018?
What I Did Love
Regardless of all of this, this book still made me cry a little. I still felt connected to the characters and I really did enjoy the story that lay beneath all the weird visions and colours and artsy fartsy stuff.
First of all, I loved the diversity in this book. I liked that Leigh is half Taiwanese and half American, and that we get to see a little bit into how she is stereotyped and the way she feels about these interactions. I enjoyed learning about her Waipo and Waigong and their histories and memories too – even if I didn’t enjoy the way this part of the story was told. Also, learning a little bit more about the culture and experiencing Taiwan through Leigh’s eyes was an awesome addition to the plot. (Also, LGBTQ+ characters and relationships that were treated as completely normal and also did not end in disaster – woohoo!)
Second, the suicide in this story was very well written. It was not romanticised in the slightest, which is often found in novels or TV shows about mental illness, and the depression leading up to the suicide was a major focus. This is so incredibly important to me – the fact the Dory’s depression was discussed and described and explained in almost excruciating detail. This was not a suicide that seemingly came out of nowhere, nor was it blamed on a specific event or person. Dory’s family history certainly played a role in the way she felt, but a major emphasis was placed on the fact that she was sick – it was not her fault nor anybody else’s.
Finally, it’s rare that I enjoy a romance (especially in YA contemporary) as much as I enjoyed this one. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the best-friends-turned-lovers trope, and this one was beautifully executed. The history and familiarity between Leigh and Axel was so sweet and lovely, and it had me rooting for these two from the very first page. I loved the slow build up, complications and ups and downs in their relationship, as well as the hesitations and fears that they both so obviously felt. This romance felt so realistic and the connection between the characters didn’t feel forced or fake. I loved it. I loved them. And I loved Axel. He might be a little young for me, but I now have a massive, massive crush on Axel.
All in all, this book was pretty decent and an enjoyable read for me – and really good for a debut novel. I gave it three and a half stars out of five on Goodreads. Do you all hate me for criticizing this book? Do you agree with anything I said? Let me know what you thought of this in the comments section!