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Book review: The Astonishing Color Of After by Emily XR PAN

To read ‘The Astonishing Color Of After’ felt like an entitlement and an incredible gift. This is a contemporary fabulism about finding oneself through family, history, art, grief and love.  It is penned down with colours and its magical realism turns to poetry as its muse.
Review by Bhoomika Mohan

I relished the way Emily XR Pan told the story of a girl, Leigh Chen, whose mother, Dory has taken her life through suicide. The way Dory left has carved a space so deep in Leigh’s heart that she got drawn down into it.

When a big crimson bird calls out her name, Leigh knows it’s her mother who has turned into a bird, reincarnated. In a hope to find secrets her parents kept, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents, and with the help of the bird Leigh looks for the covered memories that she believes have split her family’s foundation apart.

Leigh’s heart lived inside of her mother’s body, and in the wake of her suicide, so many questions sat furiously on the back of Leigh’s tongue. She’d think to herself- Did we love her wrong? Who was it’s fault? Did I fail her? What makes a person so fiercely loved want to die?

The most intriguing part is about Leigh’s journey which is as much about understanding her mother and her family as it is about understanding herself. Pan doesn’t play around victim-blaming. She is very clear about her narratives. She gives us a raw and resolute take on what it’s like to live with mental illness and how it becomes extremely difficult to make others understand the sensitivity of mental condition like depression. This book shows you that there’s no step-by-step guide to understanding mental illness.

Obviously it is a story about suicide which is a very difficult genre to read about but there’s something about this story that makes me feel so incredibly hopeful. The way that it deals with the subject matter and has the powerful capabilities to talk about death and hope simultaneously is wonderful, painful and moving.

It talks about how it is of at-most importance to communicate. Communication about the hurt, the coping, the triumphs, the failures. Pan says in her author’s note that we need to talk about how we feel, so that we no longer feel alone. The hardest part about mental illness, in her experience, is feeling alone.

Ultimately, this is a book about Leigh discovering her self in every way. From discovering her sexuality, to discovering her creativity, to trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, to living with a parent that is depressed, to sharing a life with a parent who is never home and to finally discovering her own culture that she has been kept away from.

I love how much time, attention and detail went into crafting this story. I love the characters because they are all flawed, messy and just so real. It was like my soul was creaky, insufferable noisy door and this book was the oil that got rid of the creakiness. Such a beautiful debut !

This book discusses how people always think they could have saved the person who ended their life. It is about the ones that are left behind, the ones who blame themselves and fail to hold themselves together. Its about how pills and medications are not the only fix that depressed people need. Depression is not something that we should keep stigmatising and pretending that it’s okay to live with it. This book respectfully and very beautiful depicts that.

Overall, I absolutely adore this piece of art ! This, again, is a story that I will carry inside of my heart for the rest of my life. Emily X.R. Pan has crafted something that is so honest, raw and just so magical. This is one of the most impressive debuts that I’ve ever read in my entire life. I recommend this with my whole heart and soul.

Trigger Warning- This is a very heavy book, so big trigger and content warnings for suicide, depression, loss of a loved one, depiction of blood, very intense suicidal thoughts and abandonment. But if you’re in the right state of mind, I recommend this book with my whole heart.

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