I wonder which comes first: the crushing sense of loneliness or the desire to express what’s inside. The young Yukiko Oyama is lonely. Having grown up in 60’s America she is disconnected from her Japanese heritage, unable to relate to the customs of her traditional parents. She is too westernised, kicks against her mother’s Japanese-style phonetic pronunciation of English words. For her American contemporaries she is too foreign to be accepted. Even the boots she covets in a shop window are not made in a size small enough to fit her. No wonder it’s a world she prefers to view through a filter.
It’s in the representation of that view that this book, for me, really sings. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s has a keen eye for colour, and I particularly liked the descriptive chapter headings for Yuki’s elements of the book, and the way that pallet shifts through her story, darkening, bleaching and then tending toward the dangerous.
For all the troubles she faces I didn’t find Yuki to be a sympathetic character. She’s not a person I felt I could get behind and root for as a reader. Indeed, of all the characters on these pages there aren’t many that come out dipped in any particular shade of glory. I found myself continually questioning Yuki’s choices, wondering not at her resilience but at the viewpoint, the skewed lens that guided her (if guided could be the appropriate word) through her early life. This is not one of those books where every event fits as though it were the only logical choice the writer could have made. I don’t mean that as a slight. It’s one of the things that makes the story very real.
As an isolated, even suppressed character, I found Yuki tricky to get close to at first. It made me aware of the writing, which was a double-edged sword because the writing is really nice, though I wanted to feel closer to Yuki. As the story moved on though it’s Yuki’s story that really got its claws into me (Jay I just wanted to grab by the shoulders and shake!). For all the difficulty of an unlikeable protagonist it’s the sensitivity of the portrayal that makes it so readable. Rowan is unflinching and unbiased in what she shows but never gratuitous.
Having recently read Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You is a good companion piece to the debate about the outsider’s experience in general, and those of the people of the far east in America specifically. In both cases, and from both sides of the debate, the title of Rowan’s book serves to underline these thoughts for all of us: What harm can any of us cause? Are any of us free of blame?
Harmless Like You was published by Sceptre on 11th August 2016 ISBN:9781473638327
My thanks to Sceptre and BookBridgr for allowing me to review this book.