Book Review – Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

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In 1968 Yuki is 16 and has not one friend in the whole of New York.

It’s the year her parents move back to Tokyo, but Yuki decides to stay.

As she sketches out her new life, it is also the year she’ll fall in love with a shade of orange, climb out a window, meet an aspiring model, and run tangle-haired through the night.

In 2016 gallery owner Jay becomes a father, believing he is a happily married man.

It’s the year he will finally confront his mother, who abandoned their family when he was two years old.

Her name is Yuki Oyama and she has been living for decades as an artist in Berlin. – Sceptre


With such a beautiful cover, naturally my eye was drawn to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You. Having read books like The Muse and The Goldfinch, I am starting to understand that I have a particular taste for books that live, breathe and describe art, this of course being one of them. Not only that, but my literary vow to myself in 2017 is to read more books by women and especially to pick more diverse authors (a.k.a not just white guys).

Certainly, the author herself has a diverse ethnicity, describing herself as ‘British, Japanese, Chinese, and American – hyphenation and ordering vary depending on the day’. This sense of multiple/dual/minority ethnicities is something that’s explored within the book. In 1968 we follow 16-year-old Yuki. Yuki is born of Japanese parents and having spent the majority of her 16 years in New York and not in her parents’ native home of Tokyo, she finds herself feeling displaced. With no vivid memories of Japan and no friends in New York, Yuki doesn’t really know where she belongs and struggles with her own identity.

‘Life would’ve been easier if she’d had a sister. If there’d been someone with whom living wasn’t an act of translation.’

It is that sense of alienation, detachment and displacement that runs throughout the book. Alongside this is the recurring theme of familial ties and the impact past generations can have on future generations. As we follow the young Yuki in some chapters, we also follow her future son Jay in the others. Thanks to his mother abandoning him at an early age, Jay has a difficult relationship with his own newborn daughter. In fact, his detachment from his child can be quite a difficult thing to read (at least to me) as well as Jay, just like his mother, having some questionable actions.

I would say that both Yuki and Jay aren’t necessarily likeable. There are likeable aspects to them, sure, but also a lot of issues that at times can make them very difficult to read, and in my case, to relate to. That being said, I still enjoyed reading their journeys and experiences.

As Yuki is an aspiring artist there is a real emphasis throughout on art. Her ambition is palpable and the readers follows her struggles and victories in following her dream of becoming an artist, and the opposition she faces for doing so. Colours are actually a major part of the book, whether they be vibrant or melancholy, and are sewn into the narrative. Each Yuki chapter has a colour as its title along with a description of the colour. It’s a beautiful way to begin each chapter and includes an insight into the mood of the passage to come.

It is what it is; humanity in its rawest form…

It’s the little details like that that really pull Buchanan’s book together. Harmless Like You is truly a visceral experience and doesn’t shy away from some of the uglier aspects of humanity and their connections to one another. I wouldn’t say I found this my most enjoyable read, it was neither quick or slow, and I could easily take a break from reading it for a while before picking it back up again. But it’s not supposed to be a thriller, or arguably a page-turner. It is what it is; humanity in its rawest form. For her technicality of writing and for the book’s beauty and honesty, it’s definitely well worth a read.


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