Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
Note: The following review will discuss depression and suicide.
The Astonishing Colour of After is a poignant and evocative story about mental illness, family, identity, and grief. It tells of a biracial teenage, Leigh, and her search for her mother, who Leigh believes has transformed into red bird following her suicide. And thus she follows her mother’s feathers to Taiwan where, there, she not only meets her estranged grandparents but also discovers her family history, the secrets, and the truths about her mother.
A STORY ABOUT IDENTITY, FAMILY, AND BELONGING
Leigh’s struggle with belonging, through her identity and language, was something that I related to immensely. Told with a dual narrative, The Astonishing Colour of After oscillates between the present, predominantly set in Taiwan, and the past, leading up to the time when Leigh’s mother takes her life, and thus offers juxtaposition that highlights the contrasting socio-emotional landscape of Leigh’s identity. In particular, The Astonishing Colour of After explores how language is integral to identity and belonging, and can result in feelings and experiences of disconnect with our own identities and family. Growing up in the United States, Leigh never had to speak Taiwanese – beyond a few words – and upon arriving at Taiwan, felt alienated and like an outsider within her family. Parallel to Leigh’s struggles – growing up in New Zealand and never having to speak much Chinese – the painful emotions that Leigh felt across the story were ones that felt all too familiar to me.
Hand-in-hand with its exploration of identity is an exploration of family. As someone who loves stories that center on family dynamics, I loved the complexity and vulnerability of Leigh’s family in this book. The Astonishing Colour of After examines how grief fractures a family, how mental illness is addressed and navigated within families, as well as the swelling tensions and conflicts the bubble up between parent and child. This book was also special to me, because it portrays a complex relationship between grandparent and granddaughter – one in which it is clear that they care and love each other, but both have difficulties expressing that love because of differences in culture and language. To me, the relationship was heart-wrenching and beautiful; a recognition that such relationships are complex and vulnerable but loving, one that children of diaspora could relate to – I knew I could.
OF GHOSTS AND MAGICAL ELEMENTS
A unique and wonderful feature of this book is its integration of magical elements. If I had to describe what the magic in this book was like, I’d say ‘dream-like’, at times verging on the stuff of nightmares. The dreaminess (or nightmareness) in the story is portrayed parallel to Leigh’s struggle to grieve and the desperate search for her mother. The visual manifestations of that grief and desperation were at times haunting, at times cathartic. Perhaps what was intriguing for me is that the magical elements were portrayed in an ambiguous way, one that will have readers discussing and debating their meaning.
More importantly, through the dream-like visions that Leigh experiences, she and the reader are offered glimpses into the past; memories, family histories, secrets, and pain hidden away. Leigh learns about her family’s past, why her mother refused to go to Taiwan when she was alive, and why there is such taut and heavy conflict between her father and her mother’s parents. Reading it, I did not know what to expect and was morbidly curious throughout, but the answers, though not entirely extraordinary, made me ache and feel deeply for the story and its characters.
AT ITS HEART, A STORY ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS
For all its profound explorations of identity, family, and the past, The Astonishing Colour of After is, at its heart, a story about mental illness. Explored through Leigh’s eyes, we see Dory, Leigh’s mother, and her long-term struggle with depression; the days where she couldn’t get out of bed, her suicide attempt and ideation, her ups and downs with treatment, and her loneliness and pain. Furthermore, it unpacks the harm of stigma, and how it can be a barrier to seeking help, and this is a difficult but prevalent theme across many Asian families and communities.
As well as how depression affects the individual, it also examines how mental illness impacts the wider family. We see how Leigh’s mother’s depression changes the dynamics between parent and child, and how her father’s absences leave the household and their family feeling hollow. Importantly, The Astonishing Colour of After portrays that, sometimes, how we negotiate and reconcile mental illness is imperfect and flawed, despite one’s best efforts, and that sometimes attributing fault is meaningless and does nothing but cause and perpetuate pain.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
The Astonishing Colour of After will be a book unlike anything that you have read. This is a stunning debut; one that examines a variety of complex and challenging topics wonderfully (such as identity, family, and mental illness) through the lens of a grieving biracial teen. More so, not only are its themes meaningful and important, the writing is vivid and exquisite.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A grieving teen travels to Taiwan in search of her late mother, who has transformed into a red bird.
Perfect for: Readers who like reading about identity; biracial readers looking for biracial representation; readers looking for books exploring mental illness and family dynamics.
Think twice if: Readers cannot read content that discusses depression, suicide, and death of a family member, which are heavily and candidly discussed; this book is also very heavy and far from a light read.
Genre: young adult urban fantasy
Trigger/content warnings: death of a family member, suicide including ideation, depression and depressive episodes, electroconvulsive therapy
I adored The Astonishing Colour of After. Not only was it a strong debut, but it really tackled some subjects that are hard to talk about, especially among Asian communities. I hope this book raises awareness of depression among family and among Asian communities, and encourages people to learn more about mental illness.
If you want to learn more about depression and anxiety, this awesome website (it is New Zealand based) is a great web tool, and includes an accessible and gentle quiz that might help people identify whether they have depression.
And if you want to talk to someone impartial, here is a list of international helplines.
To all my friends living with depression out there, I want you to know that you’re not alone, it is always a good time to seek help (even if it may feel like it’s never a good time), and that if The Quiet Pond can do anything to help you, please reach out.
- Have you read The Astonishing Colour of After? What did you think of it?
- Have you read another book that explores the intersections of identity and mental health? If so, please recommend some books – I’d love to read more.
- What sort of mental illness/health rep would you like to read? Perhaps I can recommend a book, or we can shout into the void about needing more rep together. 💛