Emily X.R. Pan's debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is bright, scorching white in my mind. The book's teenage protagonist, Leigh, an artist, describes her emotions through color, and, as I read her story, I found myself cycling through kaleidoscopes of shades: inky crimson for sadness, bright, brilliant blue for happiness, deep, saturated purple for frustration, and every other shade you can imagine, all because of one book about a girl whose mother dies by suicide and returns to earth as a bird.
She first sees the bird on the night before her mother's funeral. "My eyes took in her size: nothing like the petite frame my mother had while human," she says. "The length of one wing alone probably matched my height. She reminded me of a red-crowned crane, but with a long, feathery tail. Up close I could see that every feather was a different shade of red, sharp and gleaming."
Leigh, who is half-white and half-Asian, has struggled her entire life to come to terms with her identity. She's never felt American enough or Chinese enough or Taiwanese enough, and it doesn't help that she's never even met her mother's parents, who live in Taiwan and have been estranged from their daughter for as long as Leigh has been alive. Now, her mother — her only tie to this place she's never known — is gone forever.
So after the funeral, Leigh decides to travel to Taipei to meet her family. While there, she uncovers the truth about her mom — both through her grandparents' stories and through a bit of strange, unexplainable magic that allows her to travel through smoke and memories to see her mother as she used to be. She learns that her mother had a sister, that she was obsessed with the poetry of Emily Dickinson, that she was a complex woman with a history of depression who had a life that extended far beyond her role as "mother."
Emily X.R. Pan beautifully depicts grief in all its complexities: the numbing sadness, the rage, the confusion, and, most hauntingly, the joy. As anyone who has lost someone they love already knows, it's impossible to stop living amid your grief. You keep laughing. Sometimes, you fall in love. And most miraculously, you discover that your sadness has transformed you into someone entirely new — someone armed with the knowledge that you are strong enough to survive anything. Sometimes you emerge from the haze of loss with a heart bigger and braver and more grateful than the one you started with.
"There are still things to be worked through," Leigh says, near the end of the novel. "There's no way to speed through the grief. There's still a mother shaped whole inside me. It'll always be there. But maybe it doesn't have to be a deep, dark pit, waiting for me to trip and fall. Maybe it can be a vessel. Something to hold memories and colors..."
But the novel isn't solely about Leigh's relationship with her dead mother, or about her relationship with death. It's about her tumultuous relationship with her father, her budding relationship with her grandparents, and most importantly, her evolving relationship with herself. Somehow, in the midst of her greatest grief, Leigh discovers exactly who she is and what she wants.
The Astonishing Color of After is a strange and luminous book that tackles death and its aftermath with grace and honesty. But it's not just a book about the loss of a parent. This is a book about Leigh, in all her complexities and variances. She falls in love, she fights for a future that will make her happy, and she comes to terms with her own complicated identity: as American and Chinese and Taiwanese, as an artist, as a daughter without a mom, as Leigh — a girl who is overflowing with color.