Harmless Like You (11 August 2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
In 60s/70s Manhattan, Yukiko Oyama is a lonely girl, caught between two cultures; she feels ugly, and her peers either bully or ignore her. Opting to stay in New York rather than move back to Japan with her parents, she falls into an unequal friendship, then an abusive relationship – then marriage to a man who loves her, about whom she is ambivalent. All the while she strives and struggles to realise her ambition as an artist, something she feels destined to do but can find no obvious way to achieve. In the second strand of the story, set in present-day Berlin, Yukiko's estranged son Jay is forced to visit her after the death of his father.
The story is told backwards. We know at the beginning that Yukiko has become an artist, though we don't know when, or how, or exactly what she's achieved. We also know she abandoned Jay when he was very young. As Yukiko's story progresses through her life from childhood to motherhood, we come to understand how she reached this point, and how her actions have shaped Jay.
Harmless Like You might easily be dismissed as middle-of-the-road literary fiction, and in having a creative type as its protagonist, it's certainly no different from many first novels. But I can't remember ever having read a book of this sort with a protagonist quite like Yukiko: someone who has a consuming creative impulse, not just a desire to create art but a feeling that she must, that it's who she is at her essence, but experiences a lifelong struggle with expressing/channeling it, and lacks any immediately recognisable talent. Yukiko does achieve a modicum of success, but it doesn't make her famous or wealthy or influential, and her route to that success is a slow, hard slog, punctuated by long dormant periods and failures. In general, she is a rich and nuanced character who I felt fiercely attached to from the start. Her cultural displacement, her destructive streak of self-hatred, her furious, thwarted ambition – all are powerfully portrayed.
With Yukiko so vivid and lifelike, perhaps it's unsurprising that Jay is a little more... wobbly. He's a self-described 'asshole' who says unpleasant things about women's bodies pretty often, and at times it does feel like the author is laying the Horrible Sexist Man shtick on a little too thick (while also wanting the reader to like him, as demonstrated by the fact that the other major aspect of his character is how much he adores his cat – the lovely Celeste, an important character in her own right). He's still interesting, there's just a self-consciousness in the way he's written that isn't there with Yukiko at all.
Despite a bit of unevenness, I really enjoyed Harmless Like You. It's emotive, sometimes moving, but doesn't provide any proper answers for what ails its characters. Small connections are made, people promise to be better, but none of that secures a happy ending for anyone in this (really rather bleak) story. As such, it achieves a clever balance: there's a degree of harsh realism, but as a whole, the book remains quite gentle and enjoyable to read.
I received an advance review copy of Harmless Like You from the publisher through NetGalley.
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