Harmless Like You
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, £14.99)
IT’S fine to be the sort of person who ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’, but nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘harmless’. that’s the fate of Yuki, a shy Japanese teenager in 1960s new York. With none of the daring of Yoko Ono or the Bond girl beauty of Akiko Wakabayashi, she’s dismissed as just another misfit— an outsider who fails to fit Orientalist clichés. It’s up to her to make her way in the hostile city she considers her home.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes herself as ‘Japanese, British, Chinese, American, a fiction writer, an illustrator and a list-maker’. So far, so eclectic. Harmless Like You has already prompted plenty of hype and the book has a youthfulness that only a freshfaced debut novelist can produce.
You’ll either love or hate the book’s lyricism (new York is painted in chapters entitled ‘Goethite Ochre’, ‘Vermillion’ and ‘Celadon’) and the plot initially reads as a patchwork of tropes from teen movies: gawky girl gets picked up by the cool crowd, matchmaking and makeover scenes ensue.
However, the book soon outgrows its kitsch beginnings and evolves into a complex meditation on art and truth. Assaulted by the sense-overload of the city, Yuki must work out the difference between style and substance, between beauty and its abuses. Can a bruise be beautiful if it was inflicted by someone you love? And does an object become art when it’s exhibited in a gallery?
these questions are pursued in a parallel plot set in the present day narrated by Yuki’s estranged son, Jay, an art dealer, adulterer and reluctant father. It’s through his eyes that we eventually encounter the real Yuki, showing that this is no simple story of self discovery. Some harms never heal, but they can achieve a revelatory symmetry. Matilda Bathurst