Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

‘Seriously though, I think the cowards are the one over there killing harmless little girls like you.’

Yuki Oyama is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl in 1968. She’s living in New York City with her family, following a move due to her father’s work. She describes America as ‘an interruption’ in her parent’s ‘Tokyo life’. While it might be a transitional period for them, Yuki knows little of Japanese customs and traditions so when her family return to Tokyo, she remains in NYC.

All year Yuki had felt like wet tarmac: sticky and stinking; but she didn’t want to dry, she wanted to crack open so her molten core spilled out fire.

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Yuki lives with her schoolfriend, Odile, who she meets on the fire escape outside the girls’ toilets and Odile’s mother, Lillian Greychild, a romance writer. Odile has a wild streak which is both an attraction and a concern for Yuki. With Odile she has her first drink, bought for her by a man in a bar. Odile spends more and more time with men as her modelling career begins to take off and Yuki is left behind. As well as dealing with Odile’s absences, Lillian’s love life invades the flat in the form of Lou, her reporter boyfriend.

Slam – a noise like a fly being smashed. Before Yuki could look up, another thwack. Lillian yelped, and there was the heavy noise of a body falling. Leather hissed against wood. By the time Yuki’s eyes had focused, Lillian was sitting on the floor, touching her jaw.

Despite Lou’s violent behaviour, Yuki takes a job as a receptionist at the paper he works on and eventually ends up in a relationship with Lou herself.

Amongst all of this, Yuki’s desire is to be an artist. She takes classes and attempts to organise exhibitions of her work, although Lou and his writer friends rarely take her ambition seriously.

Told parallel to Yuki’s late 1960s/early 1970s story is that of Jay, her son, in 2016. We know Yuki left Jay’s father to bring him up and that Jay hasn’t seen her since he was as a baby. It’s his job to deliver the deeds to the house he grew up in, the house his father has left to Yuki.

Jay’s story is told in a relatively short space but has an interesting trajectory. His wife’s recently given birth to a daughter but Jay’s rejected her as far as he can whilst continuing to live in the same apartment.

The baby didn’t look like me, or my wife, or anyone I knew. It looked like a bag of veins. In my arms, I held this beating, bloated heart. ‘She has your eyes.’ I had my mother’s. Was it also genetic, the twitching I felt in my hands, and the great desire to just let go?

Buchanan lays several threads for the reader to follow through the story: who’s Jay’s father? How will the meeting between Jay and Yuki go? Will Jay return home and become a good father? Has Yuki been successful as an artist?

The novel considers how difficult it is to be seen as an artist when you’re a Japanese American woman. There are several mentions of Yoko Ono but often in the context of John Lennon; we know it was years before Ono was taken even slightly seriously as an artist. The core of the story though is what a patriarchal society expects women to endure: the behaviour we tolerate, the restrictions that are placed on us.

Harmless Like You is a thoughtful novel, beautifully written. It deserves the many prize listings it’s garnered since publication.

8 thoughts on “Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

  1. Pleased that you enjoyed this one, Naomi, one of my books of last year. Her writing is so striking and she handles her themes so deftly. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

  2. From you first few paragraphs I thought this book would go down the path of Yuki returning to Japan eventually and finding it hard to fit back in. Kudos to the author for avoiding that predictable plot – her’s is much better!

  3. Great review Naomi. It’s a book which has been on my radar (along with so many others) and your review makes me want to read it all the more. Eventually, I guess! Sounds like a complex and unusual novel.

    • It’s worth the wait in this instance! I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to read it; being longlisted for the Jhalak Prize was the push for me to pick it up. I’m really pleased I did, it was so much more than I was expecting. The ending is just brilliant.

  4. I have seen this book on every feed by bloggesr/readers/writers whose literary taste I trust for the past 6 months, and you all agree: It is beautifully written, and it deserves the praise and the success it’s gotten. Another book to buy in my UK’17 trip!

  5. There were some lovely poetic bits too. I was particularly fond of this description in the artist’s voice: “Raw Umber / Umber from Umbria, as in the raw earth of Italian mountains. It is the colour of a fur coat rarely worn, the oak bar in the Plaza, coffee dried to the bottom of a cup.” And, oh, I loved what the cat’s character brought to the narrative (being vague to avoid spoilers)!

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