Not being admitted, or keeping one’s distance?
Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
First Published: 11th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2016
Following his father’s death, Jay flies to Berlin to find his mother to hand over the keys to the family home; Yuki has been absent as long as Jay can remember yet his father still wanted her to have the house. Yuki’s teenage years and early adulthood were troubling times; as an artist and Japanese American growing up in the 1960s she always felt uncomfortable, distanced, and the few relationships she does have are not enough to change that, particularly as they aren’t all healthy.
Harmless Like You is a rather well-written dual narrative novel that looks at discomfort, identity, isolation, and social-racial issues in mid twentieth century America, in turn examining the effect of an absent parent on their child as well as the effects of artistic frustration on a person. Both subtle and to the point it uses interesting turns of phrase to create something rather new and full of interest but doesn’t quite make the most of the setting and characters.
The writing in this book is really something. Hisayo Buchanan favours a poetry in prose sort of style that fits somewhere between the experimental and the more usual, a narrative that could have easily swung towards the self-indulgent but doesn’t. Rarely does the author fall back on common metaphors, preferring to look at things in a different manner that fits well with the idea of an artist, a very creative style wherein you can see how much time has been spent on every sentence:
The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway. Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood, but she was dressed for a colder season.
In the playground, bodies swirled to the door like so much dish soap draining away.
Told in both the first and third person – one for each of the two narratives – the use of the two ‘persons’ boosts the overall atmosphere of distance and closeness; Jay, very much a part of society and in a loving relationship, even if it’s been strained recently by the birth of his daughter, speaks to the reader directly; Yuki, always feeling at arms-length to everyone around her and only at peace in an abusive relationship in which equates outbursts to love, is chronicled by the author. Yuki would probably be happy to narrate herself… sometimes. This use of third person means that although you spend a great deal of time with Yuki, far more than with Jay, and thus know a lot about her, the lack of the character’s own voice means you are distanced from her yourself. In any other book this would be a problem, and indeed some might say that even here it’s a problem, but it does reflect the author’s character and point well.
Yuki was a chīzubāgā [cheeseburger] – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.
Of points, Hisayo Buchanan uses a fine mix of the frank and the subtle. Yuki struggles with knowing where she fits in the world due to her heritage, ethnicity, and nationality – she looks Japanese and speaks it but does not want to live in Tokyo because it would not be a good fit, would not offer her what America can, which are things that match who she is. What and who she is are questions she asks herself often if not in so many words. In the same vein, this is a book in which Asian Americans – Japanese here – are both accepted and not, where many people have got past colour and many haven’t and the author shows both sides, where colour is irrelevant and unremarkable upon as well as that simple prejudice where it may or may not be discussed but certainly has an impact. It’s the latter that informs the text most, particularly because, like her usage of distance in her writing, the author shows unvocalised prejudice, the only vocalised questions and statements made by those who like Yuki and those who may or may not. It makes for an interesting reading experience because it allows Hisayo Buchanan to really look into Yuki’s anxieties, to show how many different elements make them up – she shows how the underlying feeling can have a big impact. Sometimes – we could even suggest it’s often – the girls who seem to dislike Yuki (because we see things from Yuki’s perspective ever time) have different reasons for disliking her, particularly as Yuki is what we’d now call flaky, other times you have to piece things together along with Yuki’s perception of what’s going on. And where there is room for debate, where it’s not definite whether Yuki’s thought is correct, there is Hisayo Buchanan’s frankness to show how Yuki has reached her opinion. (There is also a look at female friendship where distance and possible misunderstanding has eroded the connect, but this is distinct from the rest.)
Then there is the author’s own feeling, scattered throughout the text in a way that means you see it and the point of it but toes the line between the author being directly involved and not, about race and how we discuss it, of identity. It’s best to use an example:
‘So,’ Yuki’s boy asked. ‘Where’re you from?’
‘Six blocks away. Oh. My family,’ she replied. ‘Japan.’ When she moved back would she say she was from America?
There is also Yuki’s later exhibition, based on eating only white coloured food for a month, which is titled Shit’s Still Brown. It’s not commented on directly, but one can read subtext in it.
So this book is about being apart from people because of physical differences, perceived differences, and that stereotypical creative isolation – Yuki isn’t Cassandra sitting bin the sink, she’s Mr Mortmain in his room at the top of the house, staying away from relatives. Through its theme of artistry it also looks at the Vietnam war, Yuki using the Napalm girl photograph as a base for a photography series, contrasting the situation depicted with the childhoods she sees in action on the streets of America. It looks at artistic frustration and misunderstanding when Yuki photographs food for a series and people write to ask her about the restaurants instead of discussing the work itself.
And it looks at a life without a parent, parental neglect as well as purposeful separation, and the effects both have. Would Yuki have been happier if she’d not stayed with her friend and had followed her parents back to Japan? Would she have been a different person, capable of being a mother? Would she have left her abusive boyfriend earlier instead of finding comfort in the relationship? (That is something else the book looks at – why people stay, the reasons the have.)
This book does a very good job portraying characters – the main ones, at least; others aren’t so well drawn but that appears to be the point – and it does an excellent job in evoking the setting. It’s easy to imagine place and time. However the plot is minimal and this is only emphasised by the fact you know how Yuki’s life ends out because the author brings Yuki and Jay together as the introduction. The substance of this novel lies entirely in its themes and the ending isn’t particularly engrossing, Yuki remains roughly the same person as she begins. And as the theme work can be very subtle at times you do need to be happy with the idea of a gentle flow rather than something that you’re going to want to sit up and pay attention to. At times the writing becomes the best part. You may well very much enjoy the book but is it one you’d recommend to a friend?
Harmless Like You is a good début full of fine writing, well-written characters, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Yuki won’t be for everyone. And perhaps that’s also part of the point, falling very much in line with the thinking in the book. If you’re looking for something in particular, a literary element, you may find it middling; this is a book that uses broad strokes of the calligraphy brush liberally so there are patches where the ink inevitably misses.
January 11, 2017, 5:53 pm
Definitely a book I’ll keep a look out for. The issues raised sound interesting, the duel narrative used to good effect.
January 16, 2017, 2:13 pm
Tracy: Yes, the issues are dealt with well. I was surprised that Yuki was given so much time but pleasantly so; you don’t necessarily expect it going in and it works very well.