Wednesday 21 February 2018

Brilliantly intense but challenging new voice

Fiction: Harmless Like You, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre, hdbk, 305 pages, €17.33

Bidding war: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Bidding war: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Harmless Like You

Maggie Armstrong

You would want to put aside a number of hours of your life to really soak in this debut from 27-year-old Rowan Hisayo Buchanan - an intensely literary novel which comes heavily ­endorsed after a six-way bidding war.

The interlocking stories of Yuki, a Japanese-American misfit, and her grown son Jay, are told in such precise and detailed prose you've got to read this book slowly, like a collection of poetry.

Only it's a novel, which does tell a chilling and important story of the immigrant experience.

In 1968, Yuki is 16 and living in New York with Japanese parents. A melancholy mood is set - "All year, misery had sloshed under her skin". She is small and "flat-faced" and at school they call her "Yucky Yuki".

At home she is embarrassed by her family's strangeness - they eat rice for breakfast and serve dinner to their dead ancestors. When Yuki's parents return to Japan, she moves in with her only friend, Odile, a fledgling fashion model who calls Yuki "ugly" and a "loser".

The characters now become almost relentlessly uncaring or nasty, from the girls at school to Yuki's new parent figures - Odile's mother Lillian, a self-centred writer of romance fiction, and her abusive boyfriend, Lou.

1960s New York is haunted with male predators - a flasher on the street, a fashion photographer in Central Park, and Lou, who gives Yuki a job in his newspaper and grooms her.

The novel began to grip me when Yuki moved in with Lou. Their dismal relationship emerges on a thin mattress in his squalid apartment, and Buchanan excels at showing us the logic of abuse.

In the aftermath of the atomic bomb and later, the Vietnam War, we get some sense of the discrimination suffered by an Asian in America at that time.

The story becomes nightmarish as our heroine loses her identity and re-emerges in shadowy metaphors - "the Nothing", "ghost girl", "the body". Her coming-of-age is an exploration of self-loathing, with a dystopian quality of bleakness. It starts to feel pretty heavy.

A foil comes in the form of Yuki's son Jay, a contemporary art gallerist. His story is set in 2016. Having recently become a father and forced to confront the past, Jay goes to Berlin to trace his mother's whereabouts. Jay is a humorous creation, a depressive, with a "therapy cat" who he cares for more than his newborn baby ("a sack of flesh") or his acerbic wife, Mimi. His chapters are shorter and his first-person narrative more engaging than the precious penmanship that surrounds Yuki.

His story is transatlantic, crossing from Connecticut to Berlin, and has its finger on the pulse of modern life - the in-flight celebrity chef on the plane, the lonely Airbnb he stays in, the cynical art world he moves in.

But at the heart of both stories is abandonment, and a yearning to fill the absences that their parents left.

For Yuki, the only hope is becoming an artist: "But wanting to be an artist was like wanting to be a ballerina or an astronaut: a kindergartener's ambition".

The novel is named after Yuki's first art exhibition, 'Harmless Like You' and takes art very seriously. Yuki's chapters are each named after a pigment - 'Quinacridone Gold', 'Carmine', 'Vermillion' and so on - with an arty description.

I found the becoming-an-artist plotline a little too self-referential. Particularly the scene of Yuki's personal awakening inside a contemporary art gallery next to a pile of dirt and maggots. It would help to be a gallery-goer, and to know about Warhol and Pollock (who are part of the novel's backdrop), to continue relating to Yuki's, and Jay's, struggle.

The writer's eye is so sharp, no shade or corner is left to chance. When Yuki applies a pair of orange-tinted glasses: "Amber slid over the scene; she imagined it flowing over the schoolyard, freezing gossip mid-lip, pausing nail-polish brushes at half stroke, extinguishing sneaked cigarettes, rising into the teachers' lounge to freeze red pens mid check. Pigeons rose into the gilded air…".

Which is all beautiful, but exhausting. You wish, at times, that the writing gave the story more space to breath.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is definitely a talent out of the ordinary. A challenging work of art is what you might expect from a writer who describes herself in hyphens - "Japanese-British-Chinese-American" - and comes with qualifications - BA, MFA, working on a PhD. The whole package of writer and writing is dazzling. Ask yourself if you want to be dazzled.

When Harmless Like You relaxes its beady sensory detail, it brings us a brilliant new voice that can dash off observations like "people loitered in diners, but lingered in coffees" and "this woman was not my mom, but only my mother" as craftily as it describes sunlight in 15 different ways.

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