Another brilliant read for 2020! The debut novel of Emily X.R. Pan is a celebration of art and imagination, but also a vivid illustration of depression and grief. After her mother commits suicide, Leigh is convinced she has turned into a red bird, which tells her to go see her grandparents in Taiwan. The protagonist is half Asian and half white, so racial discussions come into play as well throughout the story. Keep reading this book review to find out more about why The Astonishing Colour of After is such a stunning work of magic realism.
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Leigh’s passion is art. And, even though she mostly works with pencil and charcoal, her vision of the world around her is laced with a profound study of colour. I kind of wished I knew all the shades Pan describes so I could keep up with Leigh’s descriptions, but I still enjoyed the unique representation of people, emotions, and situations. At least three other key characters are artists too, specifically in music and photography, so there’s a definite love for the arts among the book’s themes.
The Astonishing Colour of After incorporates Asian culture and mythology into the vibrant mix. Not just when Leigh goes to Taiwan, but in her life at home, where her mother would combine Chinese cooking ingredients with waffles, for example. And Leigh’s time with her grandparests is filled with mesmerising places and flavours, but also unpleasant traditions. China’s concepts of memory, death and the supernatural work especially well within the scope of magical realism. They sweep Leigh into a fantastical journey through her family’s history and memories.
Mental Illness and Otherness
The most grounding elements that make up the realism of The Astonishing Colour of After are its depictions of depression, grief, and racial discrimination. This book is actually more about a family coming to terms with a mother’s spiral towards suicide than anything else. And whether or not its family members, some estranged for years, can come closer together. Alongside a conversation about mental health, Pan’s novel brings up otherness, prevalent in both Taiwan and the US. The subtle or heartbreaking ways all these features weave through the story are particularly effective.
Short Striking Chapters
I am one of those people who loves short chapters! And The Astonishing Colour of After masterfully combines the occasional longer section with lots of small, engaging ones. This makes the reading experience flow fast and easy, while also letting individual moments stand out. Because there is a lot to discover within its pages, this strategy was a very good idea for this book. It gives you the pause and space needed to absorb its beautiful and very real messages. The intriguing narration takes care of the rest.
Emily X.R. Pan’s debut novel is a must-read in our day and age. Fans of magic realism and Asian-themed literature will love it. But its true greatness lies in how its highly imaginative imagery and writing style shine an inspiring, if painful, light on very serious issues, from suicide to otherness. There’s also a touch of romance buffering the magical mystery of the red bird. What more could you ask for?
Here are a few more great magic realism reads…