Book Review: Harmless Like You

Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, tells the dual stories of Yuki and her son, Jay, who she left with his father as an infant and has neither seen nor contacted since. It is a tale of loneliness, identity and survival. It is beautifully written.

The prologue is set in 2016 Berlin where sixty year old Yukiko Oyama is living in a cold and shabby apartment. Jay has tracked her down as he has paperwork he needs her to sign. He has not explained to her who he is.

The main narrative opens in New York, autumn 1968. Sixteen year old Yuki is living between two cultures. Her Japanese parents keep their apartment as they would in Tokyo. She does not know what an American style home is like as she has never had friends. Her mother dresses her in stiff skirts and starched blouses. Yuki hankers after the clothes and other accoutrements that the cool kids at her school wear with ease.

Yuki does not remember living in Japan but the family plan to return there the following spring. She knows she will not fit in with her American mannerisms and expectations. Her father is eager for her to gain good grades in maths and science that she may apply to study a respected subject at university. Yuki struggles to pass tests in anything other than art. It is her father’s view that good girls do not become artists.

When Yuki meets Odile, a beautiful wild child who lives with her novel writing mother, she believes she has finaly found her longed for friend. Between them they hatch a plan that will enable Yuki to stay in New York. Freed from the protective gaze of her parents, Yuki settles into her new home, until Odile leaves her too.

Alongside this narrative is the story of Jay. He is married to Mimi who has recently given birth to their daughter, Eliot. Jay and Mimi were very much in love, happy together before the pregnancy. Now, burdened with a constantly crying child, Jay contemplates following the example of the mother he never knew and walking away.

As Yuki’s story unfolds the reader is drawn into her evolving thoughts and desires. She aches to belong yet whatever direction she takes continues to feel out of place. In her head she can see and believe in the art she wishes to create. She struggles to transfer this into a form that conveys the intensity of meaning envisaged. She also struggles to cope with what she is in her Asian skin.

Yuki’s loneliness stems as much from her inability to integrate as from those who leave her through the years. Her increasing volatility is presented with emotional intelligence and a rich use of language that vividly paints each scene.

Jay’s story appears more straightforward yet his life has also pivoted on the impact of being abandoned as a child. He will learn from Yuki that the stories we tell, even of ourselves, are blinkered versions of a wider truth.

The poignancy of the story is tempered by the quality of the writing and the empathy evoked for each character’s behaviours. This is a nuanced, thought-provoking, addictive read.

Harmless Like You was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017.


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