on March 20, 2018
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
This might possibly be the hardest review I’ve ever written. While I am known for my irreverent, cynical reviews, this book has taken my heart in its little fist and crushed it – not in an angry way, but like how you are so excited to attend a concert that you crush the ticket in your palm as you wait in line for it to be scanned at the entrance to the venue. This book – this beautiful, beautiful book – has won me over.
My Tragic Backstory
I preordered Astonishing knowing I would need it, but I sat on my copy for several months. I knew that when the time was right, it would be there for me, waiting patiently on my TBR shelf.
And then, last week, my grandmother died. My beautiful paternal grandmother – the very picture of love and joy, the physical embodiment of a smile – passed away at the ripe old age of 93. I was by her side the afternoon before she passed, and as my gaze flickered over her leathery, butter-smooth skin all I could think of was the love we shared for nearly 30 years together. I whispered sweet nothings into her ears though I was unsure if she could hear me – there was swelling on her brain and it was only a matter of time until her brain stem gave up its fight – and told her it was okay to let go, that we loved her so. I always will.
That next day, I was in the car on the way home when I got the notification that she had passed away. That night, I pulled The Astonishing Color of After off my shelf and cracked the spine for the first time.
You see, I am not just a young woman who lost her grandmother like so many others before me, and many more to come. I am also a survivor of suicide loss. On October 26, 2016, my then-boyfriend sat down in our master bedroom closet, pressed a gun to his head, and took his own life. I stood about three feet away, shaking so hard I felt as if I might come unglued right then and there. And so I knew I needed Astonishing – I just didn’t know how much.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
The Astonishing Color of After is indeed a book about a young woman named Leah who loses her mother to suicide, but to say that is the summary is to do Leah’s story a serious disservice. This is the story of Leah’s father, a man struggling so desperately to maintain his ability to provide for his little family while his wife suffers from an unmentionable, overbearing sadness. This is the story of Leah’s grandparents, her Waipo and Waigong, their good friend Feng and Leah’s best friend, Axel. Perhaps most importantly, though, this is the story of Leah’s mother, Dory. We never meet Dory, but we feel as if we do through flashbacks and memories. Dory, a nickname for Dorothy – the name not just of Leah’s mother, but my grandmother – which means “gift of God.”
I wish my words could do the language in this book justice. Leah is a natural-born artist, and she sees life in colors. Not just “purple” and “red,” I am talking about colors like carnelian and cadmium – I have googled so many new-to-me colors this past week. We walk with Leah, from learning of her beloved mother’s suicide to her grandparents’ home in Taiwan. Her drive is to find a “why” – why is Dory dead? If only I had just done XYZ, if only I had noticed ABC, she’d still be here. That blame game is one that I know all too well, and my heart ached in time with hers as she pushed to find the answers no one can find in death. Leah’s mother is different, however – in death, she has become a bird. A large, red crane-like bird. And Leah has her heart set on capturing her to find answers.
I traced Leah’s footsteps as she in turn traced her mother’s, growing closer to her grandparents as they showed her her mother’s favorite places. I tasted the food cooking at the night market, and I smelled the incense at the temples. I heard the cry of Leah’s mother-bird as she soared ahead, and I felt my heart break in time with hers, her father’s, her grandparents’. And by the time I closed the cover last night and felt a tear slide down my cheek, I felt as if I had journeyed to Taiwan and back home again along with Leah and her father, this rich sense of belonging and homecoming swept over me. I was home again, too.
The Bottom Line
My partner who died by suicide was never a bird. But I so intimately understand the endless litany of what if? you play over and over again, each and every day in your head like the world’s worst and most useless prayer. We are human, and it’s natural for us to want to find the “why” in any given situation. We see Leah and her family struggle to come to terms with this, and it’s heartbreaking but also a balm. Ms. Pan finds ways to weave reassurance into a soothing weighted blanket that I felt drape over my shoulders – you aren’t alone in this, Astonishing assures me. And it was not your fault. And while the intelligent, grown adult part of me knows that, my inner scared teenager so appreciates this.
Everyone should read this book, because everyone will experience death at some point in their lives. And if that doesn’t convince you, then I don’t know what will. Just know that it is here, and it’s waiting for you when you are ready for it.
Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger. At some point, my mother slid so off track she sank into hues of gray, a world drawn only in shadows.