I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Harmless Like You: A Novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 28th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Coming of Age, Asian American
Format: Electronic ARC
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If she didn’t burn, she’d rot.
When Jay was only two years old, his mother walked out on him and his father. Thirty-three years later, he’s feeling the strong urge to flee after the birth of his own child. The death of his father forces him to confront the mother who has always been a mystery to him. Why would a mother abandon her child? Is Jay destined to abandon his own family?
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
1968-1983: Yuki is adrift. At sixteen-years-old, after years of being “Yucky Yuki,” she finally has a friend. Unfortunately, her family is planning to return to Japan soon. She asks her parents to let her stay in New York with her new friend Odile and they agree, with very little pushback. Yuki was already lonely and depressed, but she loses her only anchor when her parents leave her behind. She can’t find a place where she belongs. Living in New York for most of her life has made her too American for Japan, yet she is still too Japanese for the Americans. She desperately wants to be an artist but isn’t very talented. She floats through life, latching onto whoever shows her interest. She is highly susceptible to toxic relationships. Her friendship with Odile sparks fast, but burns out just as quickly. Yuki’s first boyfriend is abusive, but she can’t bring herself to leave; he’s the only person who’s exclusively hers and she can’t imagine anything better for herself. Even her one chance at a healthy relationship is a giant misstep, destined to fail from the beginning. The only time she feels alive is when she’s hurting.
When I was a kid, I used to ask Dad, was it my fault Mommy left? He always said she’d just been an unhappy person. My old psychiatrist said it was ridiculous to blame my two-year-old self. I believed her, until I had a baby of my own.
2016: As the son Yuki left behind, Jay has many unresolved issues. He’s unable to find his footing as a father. The pregnancy and birth of his child has altered his relationship with his wife and he feels a strong impulse to run. In addition to the stresses of becoming a father, his own father’s death has left him without a parent to turn to for support. However, his mother is still living. Jay’s father willed his home to Yuki, so Jay has to locate her to sign the paperwork. Jay is apprehensive about meeting the mother he doesn’t remember, but whose abandonment influenced his life. His biggest comfort is an ugly cat that he refuses to abandon despite his wife’s wishes. Will meeting his mother give him closure or confirm a genetic compulsion to run?
Yuki suspected all men of having some measure of violence. Some clubbed you with silence, and some relied on their fists. Feeling [his] fury, she was relieved, no longer becalmed in false gentleness.
The chapters alternate between Yuki’s coming-of-age tale and Jay’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment, until they finally meet in Yuki’s Berlin apartment. Harmless Like You is about home, belonging, identity, and the importance of family bonds. There are no explosive revelations, but the characters’ inner turmoil is fascinating. Yuki is so passive, but I was riveted by her story. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider will see a sliver of themselves in Yuki. During my reading I was anxious to find out why Yuki ran away and if Jay would follow the same course, but most of all I was curious to see if Yuki ever found what she was looking for.
Someday, she might be able to hold these photographs up as a lasting record of herself. People would look at them and recognise not her flat face or limp hair, but her true self, the Yuki behind the pupils. The Yuki who was the see-er not the seen.