The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R. Pan (Little Brown 978-0-316-46399-7, $18.99, 462pp, hc) March 2018.
The unreliable narrator has a long and illustrious career in fiction, taunting readers with questions of fantasy versus reality in novels ranging from We Have Always Lived in the Castle to Gone Girl. Either because they are shameless liars, accidental embellishers, or suffering from a degree of mental illness or trauma, unreliable narrators lead us on a merry chase of twists and turns as we wonder just how much truth resides in the stories they share. In The Astonishing Color of After, teenager Leigh Chen Sanders is devastated by her mother’s recent suicide, and thus her pronouncement, on the very first page, that “My mother is a bird” can easily be dismissed as wishful fantasy. But in the ensuing chapters author Emily X.R. Pan reveals a trail of discoveries amidst long buried memories that cannot be ignored. Leigh might sound like an unreliable narrator and act like an unreliable narrator, but also maybe, just maybe, her dead mother really is a bird.
The mystery of Leigh’s mother is not only why she killed herself but also what she wants Leigh to do now that she is gone. In the guise of a giant red bird (if she is indeed Leigh’s mother), she randomly appears, wrenching her daughter out of the daily life she and her father have struggled to build. Leigh becomes convinced that to understand the red bird she must travel to her mother’s home in Taiwan and meet her grandparents. The family’s estrangement has long been a concern for her and now she is certain that it is at the heart of her mother’s return. Forced to consider that something other than his daughter’s grief might be at work, her father makes the arrangements, and soon enough they are in Taiwan where answers will be found, whether the shattered family wants to hear them or not.
The Astonishing Color of After is about many things, all of them explored beautifully by Pan’s heart-shattering skill and style. There is much about complicated family relationships, changing friendships, and regret, all woven into a narrative that deeply immerses the reader into life in modern-day Taiwan. Whether or not the red bird is real, or the memories that Leigh experiences in increasingly intense flashbacks brought on by magic, the mystery of why her mother’s family broke apart must be investigated. Leigh alternates between roles as girl detective and potential victim of madness as the novel charges forward, with no one certain just what the next chapter might reveal. Through it all, Pan’s language, her gorgeous descriptions of everything from the most prosaic of family moments to startling showers of red feathers, leads readers through rose-colored memories into a present where anything is possible or impossible.
This is a lush page-turner of a book that blends a straightforward teen coming-of-age and tragic family drama with the legends and stories surrounding the Chinese Ghost Month. It’s an exquisite novel with an irresistible narrator and beguiling mystery. Pan has accomplished so much with The Astonishing Color of After; her writing shimmers on every single page.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2018 issue of Locus.
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