I'm sorry. I can't. Don't hate me.
Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Colour of After
begins with Leigh recounting the day her mother died from suicide, leaving a crumpled note in the trash with a crossed out message: “I want you to remember.” Soon after, a mysterious red bird leaves a gift for Leigh: a package filled with mementos of her mother. Leigh convinces her father to take her to Taiwan for the first time to meet her mother’s estranged family, secretly hoping she’ll also be able to find the bird that she believes is her mother’s ghost. Once there, her father leaves for Hong Kong, and Leigh is alone with her grandparents who don’t speak English. Leigh struggles with what little Mandarin she knows, but before long, a young friend of the family begins visiting, a woman who can translate between Leigh and her grandmother.
Leigh is then visited by a series of memories that reminded me of the Ghosts of Christmas Past from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
, where she sees not only her own memories but also her mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s. For the first time, she learns of her family’s history, but instead of drawing comfort, she only grows more frustrated that there’s so much she never knew about her mother. She ignores messages from her father and best friend and lashes out at the helpful family friend, growing more desperate to find and capture the red bird before her time runs out.
I did enjoy all of the parts about the food in Taiwan. For the three years I’ve been with my partner, I’ve heard almost non-stop about how great the food is in Taiwan where his parents were born and where he’s been visiting since he was a child. As much as we’ve traveled in the last few years, I still haven’t gone with him to Taiwan for reasons that I need to just get over. I know I’d love Taipei and the food and the night markets. As much as I disliked this book, it at least convinced me that it’s time to go.
As for the rest of it, I understand that I’m probably going to end up in the minority here, but this book just didn’t work for me. At all. It’s unfocused, trying to be too many things, but I don’t fault Pan as much for that sin. At least she’s ambitious. The result is a mess, though. It’s slow, repetitive, clunky, heavy-handed, too much telling and not enough showing, and she uses one of my most hated devices: super-short chapters that kill any chance for narrative momentum. For a book that should have taken a few days, even for a slow reader like me, it took me a week, and that’s only because I sped through the last half when I realized where it was going.
Those aren’t even the biggest sins. I can’t really go into detail about my most hated parts, since I don’t want to leave any spoilers, so I’ll just say that I hated the way Pan dealt with the mother’s depression and suicide. I found it cheap and manipulative, more like a prop than an exploration of serious health issue, and it ends up lost in all of the mystical melodrama. Even though Leigh’s emotional response to her mother’s illness and death are genuine and gut-wrenching, I wish Pan had found a way to clear up rather than reinforce the negative stereotypes and misconceptions.
(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)