One of the things that draws me to young adult books is their handling of serious issues. When I saw this title dealing with both depression/suicide and the search for roots and answers to family secrets, I was intrigued. The Astonishing Color of After handled both beautifully. Leigh's search for answers and connection to the Taiwanese grandparents she never knew after her mother's death is a painful one that reaches no easy answers but still ends with hope and an implied sense that healing can finally begin.
Grief is clearly a major theme here, and it works well with some of the narrative choices like magical realism and Leigh's artistic understanding of the world. Her world is one experienced through the lens of something like synesthesia. She and her best friend/crush ask each other "What color?" as a shorthand for "How are you feeling right now?" since Leigh so strongly associates emotions with colors. The aftermath of her mother's death by suicide is a world of greys and muted colors but each memory she unburies, each emotion, has its own specific, corresponding color. That hue-rendered motif already lends an abstract layer to the story, but then the magical realism kicks in. There's her mother, of course, who appears to Leigh as a literal red bird, not "like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap." Feathers fall like clues to her quest. Impossible messages are delivered, containing letters and artifacts once burned in offering. During Ghost Month, other spirits can be seen, shifting like shadows in the trees. Leigh's insomnia lends an extra layer to the disorientation of grief and of being the odd one out in her grandparents' lives and country. Because the story is told in first-person point of view, we're right there with Leigh, uncertain sometimes what's actually real, terrified when even reality itself seems like it's literally falling apart.
Depression is handled well too. Many of Leigh's flashbacks reveal that her mother's depression was a major shadow in the family, one with ups and downs. There are, of course, painful family secrets and estrangement lurking in the background, but none of that is provided as a pat answer to the big Why. Sometimes medication or other treatments work, and sometimes the depression doesn't respond. Leigh's father handles it imperfectly, and sometimes Leigh feels resentment at being stuck between a shadow of a parent and an absent one who travels frequently for work. They feel, in short, like a real family responding understandably to a difficult situation. One of the hopeful threads at the end has to do with both Leigh and her father agreeing to seek therapy to help them process everything, which is a valuable inclusion.
I've read plenty of good books lately, but I was craving an absorbing, powerful read, and The Astonishing Color of After delivered a beautiful, cathartic story that will haunt me long after I've closed the pages.