Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Identity and not belonging

Cover imageI read Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut immediately after Sara Taylor’s The Lauras. Both deal with themes of identity and the parent/child relationship but whereas Taylor’s novel had me foxed as to how to refer to her determinedly androgynous narrator, things are very much more straightforward with Buchanan’s protagonists. After his Canadian father dies en route to meet his new granddaughter, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was six. Singled out as an oddity at school, she’s astonished when she’s taken up by the streetwise, beautiful Odile. These two trawl the bars, Odile intent on filching money from her admirers’ pockets, eventually meeting Trench Coat as Yuki dubs the young man who gives Odile her start in the modelling world. Edison, his unlikely companion, fades into the background, turning up years later when Yuki begins a life class, hoping to find her artistic compass. Yuki manages to persuade her parents to let her live with Odile and her mother rather than return with them to Japan ten years after their arrival. As Odile’s career takes off, Yuki finds herself a job as a receptionist, helped along by Lou on whom she develops a crush after he encourages her artistic aspirations. These two slip into a relationship, staying together far too long – Yuki wrestling with her feelings of nothingness and the need to find an artistic outlet, Lou hefting a chip on his shoulder and taking it out on Yuki. When things finally come to an end, Edison hopes to fill the gap but it seems the chasm of nothingness in Yuki is too great. Yuki’s story is interspersed with that of her son, bereft of the father he had hoped would teach him how to parent his own baby daughter and filled with resentment at his mother who he manages to track down to Berlin.

Buchanan unfolds her story from Yuki’s perspective, interpolating Jay’s reluctant preparations for meeting his mother and his struggles with new parenthood into the narrative. Her writing is often striking: a flasher wears ‘a fedora and a thin beige raincoat, like a cartoon detective’; yellow paint is ‘the colour of streetlights on puddles at night, pickled yellow radish and duck beaks’; when Yuki moves in with Lou, Odile’s mother – Lou’s erstwhile lover – ‘didn’t offer to return the money Yuki’s father had paid for the year. But then again, they were both thieves. Yuki had pocketed the flavour of Lou’s smile and she wasn’t giving it back’. Of the two strands, Yuki’s is the most involving, her aching feelings of nothingness vividly conveyed. At first Jay’s story seems like an abrupt interruption but as the novel progresses his narrative thread feels more neatly woven in. The book’s poignancy is leavened with a wry humour, occasionally downright comic – the vision of Jay’s hairless therapy cat, prescribed as a cure for his fainting fits, all done up in her ‘festive sweater’ will stay with me for some time. Buchanan ends her novel satisfyingly, deftly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Altogether a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable novel. I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

13 thoughts on “Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Identity and not belonging”

  1. I’ve been contemplating buying this but was aware I was being manipulated by the buzz. I cheekily read the first page in a bookshop last week and really liked the writing. Yours is the second review I’ve seen saying one story is stronger than the other though. Is it worth buying now or shall I wait for the paperback?

    1. That’s a tricky one. I’d say it depends on the state of your TBR pile. The buzz is well deserved and it’s earned a place on my shelves which a book has to work very hard for these days given how over crowded they are.

      1. Oh, praise indeed. My TBR is a state! However, that doesn’t prevent me from chasing sparkly new things. My car’s booked in for its MOT on Tuesday so I’ll make a decision on the outcome of that!

  2. I would imagine that the humour is an essntial element given the stresses and strains in the story. A welcome relief?

  3. I’ve been eyeing this one up, thanks to the interesting cover, the obvious Japanese connection and the buzz around the reviews. Your review has only added to the feeling that this will eventually find its way on to my list. Thanks Susan! Great review, as always.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. You’re very kind! It’s a brilliant cover, isn’t it, and works well for the book both aesthetically and thematically.

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