Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Kate Jones
Reviewed by Kate Jones
Summary: A well written, unique and engrossing debut novel with a strong emphasis on art, identity and familial bonds.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473638327

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Shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2017

This is the debut novel from Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, but you would never know it. It's an accomplished, unusual, poetically written story about a young Japanese girl, Yuki Oyama, who has lived most of her life in New York. As such, she feels an outsider: the American girls at school ignore her and she finds the rituals of her parents' home suffocating. Her father has hopes of her studying medicine, but the only thing Yuki enjoys is art.

In what I thought was a slightly unbelievable turn of events, her parents agree to return to Japan without her, leaving her in the care of her best friend's mother, a writer who pays little attention to the two girls. At last, Yuki begins to feel she has a place to be. But as her friend Odile gets involved in the world of fashion modelling, and Yuki falls in love for the first time, her living situation gets compromised again.

I found myself rooting for Yuki in this section of the book, as she goes to live with her older lover who is occasionally violent towards her. She decides to get a job and drop out of school to take art classes, hoping that one day she can make her father proud of her with her own show.

Whilst Yuki's story starts in the sixties, taking in such historical events as the Vietnam War, the story is also interspersed with the story of her son Jay in present-day New York and Connecticut. We learn through Jay that his mother, Yuki, abandoned him as a baby with his loving Canadian father, who has just died. He has also recently become a father himself and decides to travel to Berlin, to meet his mother. We discover that he, too, is struggling with becoming a parent, and his experience is starting to parallel Yuki's.

If I had anything negative to say about the book, it would be that I found Yuki slightly annoying by the middle of the book. Although Buchanan is, I think, showing us how difficult life is for her, not feeling that she truly belongs anywhere and struggling to prove herself as an artist, I would have liked to have seen her become stronger and take some action. I guess the idea that she eventually must leave her son - which I'm not giving away because it is in the opening Prologue – leads us to think that, at some, point, she must make a decision for herself, but it is a long time coming.

I did find that the ending was really well written, however. It is believable and seems the 'right' ending, somehow. Jay and Yuki's reunion is handled sensitively but not over-emotionally, and there is no finality to it; it feels that there could be more to their story to come.

All in all, this book is a well written and slightly unusual story, which has a wide scope but doesn't get bogged down in details. Art is clearly a large influence in the book; as well as Yuki trying to become an artist, Jay owns an art gallery and represents various artists. But if you have no interest in art, don't worry, it isn't dependent on your enjoyment of the book, which is a great achievement for a first-time author. I highly recommend it.

If you like this, you might like: This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle and Martin Aitken (translator). You might also enjoy Artist in Residence by Simon Bill. Buchanan also contributed to How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love by Carys Bray and others.

Booklists.jpg Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is in the Top Ten General Fiction Books of 2016.

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Buy Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan at Amazon.com.


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