I typically do not read books labeled as Young Adult (YA). I did not realize that The Astonishing Color of After was a YA novel and by the time I did, I was so interested that I had to persist. This debut novel by Emily X. R. Pan begins moments after teenager Leigh's mother Dora has slashed and killed herself. One of the nights following her death, Dora visits Leigh as a red bird and leaves her a box filled with artifacts from her past. With that box and incense sticks she discovers at her mother's parents home in Taiwan, Leigh starts on a journey to find answers to the many questions she has about the red bird and her mother.
This novel is literally suffused with color. Our narrator Leigh is an art student and her emotions are always described through colors. There is a lot about Taiwanese and Chinese history, language, culture and food in the story. But the overarching character is depression, which killed Dora. The word depression itself appears way late in the book, only towards the end of a series of incense-fuelled magical flashbacks through which we see how a talented and loving mother descended bit by bit into it and how it affected her family.
For a debut novel this one is surprisingly good. From the Author's Note at the end, it is apparent that Emily based Leigh on her Asian-American self and the death on a similar suicide in her own family. That might be why I felt that the story and characters to be genuinely interesting and the family and teenage moments as intense. Suicide and depression are delicately handled and I discovered a lot about this subject through this book. The real problem with this book is that it is too long at 450 pages. The first half is especially stretched out and it is only in the second half that everything gets very interesting. Emily throws in a few filmi twists too in the climax. This was a thoughtful read, but I would have loved the experienced a lot more if it had been way shorter.
Rating: 3/4 (★★★☆)