Thursday, 13 April 2017

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Harmless Like You begins and ends with a meeting between mother and son, thirty years after the mother walked out on her family without an explanation.

In the pages between, two timelines unfold towards each other – the mother’s unveiling her damaged life in New York; the son’s, thirty years on, revealing him coping (badly) with both the death of his father and the birth of his daughter.

Yuki is an artist. Each of her chapters begins with the name of an artist’s colour, how it got that name, how it is made and how it is used. Yet for most of her life, Yuki’s artistic vision is stifled, and her sense of self distorted by her relationships with three men – her Japanese father who would never accept ‘artist’ as a valid future for his daughter; her older lover, who veers between off-hand encouragement and a toxic mix of abuse and contempt; and her doggedly loyal friend, whose kindness and support can seem like being smothered in cotton candy.

The book’s title, shared with Yuki’s first photographic exhibition, comes from a remark made by her lover, Lou, talking about his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“I think the cowards are the ones over there, killing harmless little girls like you.”

There is a casual racism in the way her equates her to the Vietnamese girls. Even more, a paternalism in the way he underestimates Yuki. She is not a little girl and she is not harmless!

Yuki’s life apparently contrasts with that of her one-time best friend, Odile. Odile’s outwardly more successful existence as a model is played out in front of the camera rather than behind it. But that life, too, began with an act of male abuse, an act that fractured their friendship.

The other half of the novel is, in essence, the story of two kind men. Men who would never be abusive in the way that Lou was. But is that kindness in itself a form of paternalism? Does it do its own unintentional damage? Or it is the fact that Yuki is already damaged that skews her responses? And what damage did Yuki herself do when she abandoned her son?

Harmless Like You is a study in close focus of the harm we do, casually or deliberately, and how that harm spreads outwards and passes from generation to generation.

It was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Avoid If You Dislike: Unmotherly mothers

Perfect Accompaniment: New York bagel with lox

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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