The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Thank you, Hachette Book Group, for giving me a finished copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
There’s no point in wishing. We can’t change anything about the past. We can only remember. We can only move forward.
Last December, many K-pop fans (myself included) were distraught when SHINee’s Jonghyun committed suicide. Following this tragedy, EXO’s Baekhyun was criticized for saying that he didn’t know why people get depressed. These events in the K-pop world piqued my interest and made me realize that depression isn’t something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially now that more and more people in Asia are falling into its dangerous clutches. Since I personally haven’t experienced depression or had suicidal thoughts, books like this provide an opportunity for vicarious learning. When I read such literature, I look for enlightenment, not entertainment. Hence, although 462 pages seems to long for a YA contemporary novel, I am glad that I pushed through.
The Astonishing Color of After is primarily a melancholic book. In fact, most of the blurbs at the back have the word “grief.” It is about a girl named Leigh, whose mother has committed suicide. Strangely, Leigh believes that her mother has turned into a bird. After Leigh finds her mother’s suicide note, she travels to Taiwan in order to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh reminisces about her past, tries to find the mysterious bird, and gradually unveils the painful secrets of her family. In totality, this book is both literally and figuratively heavy.
One reason why I enjoyed this book is that it reiterated the biological aspect of depression. As a Christian, I used to believe that depression was mostly spiritual in nature. With that in mind, reading this book made me acknowledge the fallibility of this idea. After all, if depression were only a spiritual problem, it couldn’t be cured or managed by modern medicine. In the book, Leigh’s mom underwent various kinds of therapy that made her feel better by altering the chemical composition of her brain. Research has proven that people with depression generally have lower levels of happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin. Thus, it would be foolish and unfair to assume that depressed people have something wrong with their faith or spiritual lives. Doing so could even be a form of ableism. Yes, my Christianity makes me experience life in a different way. But I don’t believe that it makes me immune to depression. I actually have a friend who suffers from depression, and it makes me sad that he/she was ostracized by some of the members of her own church. With all that said, I am grateful that this book taught me that we shouldn’t judge people with depression, an illness that has so many layers.
Another reason why I liked TACOA is that it exposed me to Chinese/Taiwanese culture. Aside from numerous descriptions of food, there were discussions on death, marriage, and more. Thus, this book made me hungry for food and information. I currently don’t have the means to travel to foreign countries, so I’m glad that books like this enable me to experience different cultures from the comfort of my bed. Hahaha. Chinese culture already thrives here in the Philippines, but I would love to experience it in its purest form by visiting China someday.
The last reason for my enjoyment has something to do with this thing called love. I mentioned before that TACOA is a melancholic book, but don’t worry because there are actually some light and fluffy parts. I was particularly fond of the chapters featuring Axel, Leigh’s best friend. I’ve always been a fan of the best-friends-to-lovers trope (because it prevents any case of instalove), and the author utilized it almost perfectly. Still, it would’ve been better if Axel hadn’t offended my feminist sensibilities by using a certain girl as a so-called distraction.
Looking back, the main problem that I had with this book was its color-related metaphors. In this regard, the writing reminded me of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. Leigh and Axel were very gifted artists, and they had this thing of conveying their emotions by naming very unfamiliar colors. For example, jealousy was this special kind of green, guilt was this shade of orange, etc. You can just read the book’s title if you don’t get what I’m trying to say. It takes a lot of imagination to comprehend the color of “after” and other abstract concepts.
Despite the latter complaint, I highly recommend The Astonishing Color of After because it gave me an enlightening reading experience. It’s a book that can start discussions on topics that people usually avoid: depression and suicide. Also, it introduces readers to the beauty of Asian/Chinese culture. If anything, the sweet romance is just a bonus. Overall, kudos to another contemporary novel with very meaningful and relevant content.
P.S. Other noteworthy virtues of TACOA include:
1. Diversity (Leigh is half-Chinese and Axel is half-Filipino)
2. Heartwarming family dynamics
3. Magical plot twists