‘My mother is a bird. This isn’t some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.’
Leigh Chen Sanders is sixteen when her mother dies by suicide, leaving only a scribbled note: ‘I want you to remember’. Leigh doesn’t know what it means, but when a red bird appears with a message, she finds herself travelling to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time.
Leigh is far away from home and far away from Axel, her best friend, who she stupidly kissed on the night her mother died – leaving her with a swell of guilt that she wasn’t home, and a heavy heart, thinking she may have destroyed the one good thing left in her life.
Overwhelmed by grief, Leigh retreats into her art and into her memories, where colours collide and the rules of reality are broken. The only thing Leigh is certain about is that she must find out the truth. She must remember.
What I thought:
This book is beautiful. In the language and the imagery as well as the tone. There is nothing about this book that I didn’t enjoy
The whole story is a mix of myth, magic, death, depression and love. Which when written out doesn’t seem great but the mix of the Taiwanese myths of death and ghosts with different cultures and a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in in either place rings true and leave you with a mystical book but accepts the past but also looks to the future.
Leigh is stuck in a half place, she’s different from everyone at home because she’s half Taiwanese – somewhere she’s never visited in her life due to a falling out between her mother and her grandparents. And yet when she goes to stay with her family in Taiwan after her mother’s suicide she stands out there for being too white.
It would be easy for a book to shy away from the realities from suicide (even when that’s a main topic) but Pan deals with it delicately but still looking at the harsh reality of what it means for the people left behind as well as how a person can get to that point. Leigh goes through all stages of grief throughout the book as well as dealing with the extra anger and guilt that suicide causes – how dare they choose to leave you? and how did you not notice things were getting this bad? With Leigh retreating into her art and into herself you get a real sense of how this has affected her. It doesn’t help that her mother has literally turned into a bird and is visiting her. Her decision to visit Taiwan is a difficult one because not only is her language rusty but it was something her mother never wanted her to do. Leigh however feels that with her mother’s suicide night telling her to remember, that it is her only option. She has to find out what she needs to remember.
In Taiwan she throws herself into the culture as much as she can with her broken language and the help of Feng to try and find out everything she needs to. She’s got 49 days to find out what her mother wanted her to know before her mother’s spirit makes the transition into rebirth. This time limit makes Leigh frantic at times and also allows her to ignore the things and the people she left at home. Her best friend Axel and her art which her teacher keeps pushing her to exhibit. She can’t think about what’s happening back home because all her focus is on her mother, it’s an escaping mechanism as well as part of the grief process. This way of thinking about grief is a way that is rarely seen in books but to me it’s the most realistic, it’s not ignoring it but it’s focusing on something to the extent of ignoring everything else. Everything Leigh is doing is about her mother and trying to make sense of what happened but also trying to ignore it. She’s desperate to learn about her mother’s past to see if that has the answers in and by looking into the past she can ignore the present and the future.
The whole book is filled with flashbacks and memories of her mother through different points of view and Leigh looking in on them. She’s then forced to work out where the new knowledge she gained fits with what she knows of the mother she loved. This dual point of view allows for a breather, and at one point gave me time to stop crying, it’s a break from the intensity of grief. And it’s the same for Leigh as well as the reader.
Why I read it:
I started talking to the author over NaNoWrimo last year (2017) and so when she started pushing her book I pre-ordered it. Also look at that front cover, look how beautiful that cover is!
This is a beautiful book in the language and imagery. I don’t know much about Taiwan or their beliefs about death so I can’t judge how true they were but I fell in love with them as much as the characters.
Also this is the third book that I can ever remember crying at.
Would I recommend: YES! Like seriously, everyone should go read this book! I’ve already given a copy for a birthday present.
Popsugar: About death/grief, LGBTQ+ protagonist, author with a different ethnicity to you, about mental health, published in 2018, problem facing society today.
Read Harder: Romance by or about a PoC (this may not be the main plot but as it’s there I figured I would use it).
It’s been a busy week for books with 5 of my most anticipated pre-orders coming out this week. I’ve been busy reading them but plan to continue with this.
Please do let me know if you’re reading this and what you think. It would be lovely to have some comments and to know if you’ve read this book or if my words make you interested.
Ta Ta for now
P.S My next book is back to Roald Dahl with ‘The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me.’