This is a story about disconnection. About not fitting into the culture where you have been placed.
Harmless like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is a sad story, but all the more poignant and for me, more readable because of this. It is sad, but the attention to detail is exquisite and the sense of alienation, displacement and isolation permeating this novel only serves to enhance its cleverly executed plot.
It is 1968 in New York. A time of change and a time of challenge. Yuki Oyama is sixteen years old. Her thoroughly traditional Japanese parents barely tolerate their American way of life, longing always for life in their old country. Yuki then is a kind of hybrid. An American kid in a Japanese body. She feels like she does not really belong to either culture, and it is this tension which creates the brooding atmosphere of the novel. How do you fit in when you don’t fit in?
Always an outsider at school, Yuki is befriended by the beautiful but flighty and eccentric Odile, the only child of her novelist mother Lillian. When Yuki’s parents decide to leave New York and return to Japan, they somewhat surprisingly allow their daughter to board with Lillian and Odile – an extremely tenuous agreement, which on closer examination would have possibly been judged to be an extremely foolish idea.
Odile leads Yuki into some frightening teenage romantic encounters which confuse her deeply. Always a quiet girl and a very deep thinker, she begins to invest her increasingly solitary time into drawing and sketching people. It soon becomes her passion as Odile herself is drawn away into the world of fashion and modelling and she abandons Yuki to follow her own dreams.
Yuki and Lillian exist in the same house, each barely aware of the existence of the other. The lack of parenting leaves an emotional deficit in the young Yuki’s life. Her own parents are so far away, and are such traditional thinkers that she feels she cannot confide in them. To fill in time she begins to work in the newspaper office of Lillian’s much younger lover, journalist Lou. Lou and Yuki quickly become allies and, eventually, Lou leaves Lillian and invites Yuki to live with him in his tiny apartment. What had at first seemed an innocent fatherly interest had been to all intents and purposes a calculated plan to seduce Yuki.
As Yuki invests more and more time into her art, the relationship becomes toxic with Lou. What begins as an odd shove or slap from him soon escalates into domestic violence, and Yuki’s only confidante is Eddison, her comforting and kind friend from her art class. But where do you go when there is no home to return to and no family to protect you.
The book is successfully sliced into three narrative time periods. It is now the mid eighties and Yuki has left Lou, married Eddison and moved away from New York to beautiful Connecticut to pursue her art more seriously. However, things happen which make her question her decisions, her sense of belonging, her mental health and ultimately her identity as a human being.
The reader is then thrust into 2016 where young up and coming art gallery owner Jay and his wife Mimi are adjusting to the birth of their child Elliot. And then there is his bald cat Celeste. Jay is totally dependent on his cat, believing that she stops him having the mysterious seizures that have plagued him from childhood. Mimi is less than sympathetic and the stresses of a new infant, possible infidelity and the recent death of Jay’s father place strain upon the relationship. And then Jay must travel to Berlin to look for the mother who abandoned him when he was only a small child. And it will be Celeste who will accompany him, not Mimi and his child.
What makes this novel so impacting, is the calm, almost nonchalant way that the reader becomes a reluctant voyeur as we at times uncomfortably observe the actions of the characters. I winced as Lou’s violence causes Yuki to start hiding and even justifying her bruises. Domestic violence while not openly discussed lends an uncomfortable complicity between reader and character. I also felt the slap of his indifference to her art and to her aspirations. The emotionally damaged Yuki may never comfortably find her fit within the American lifestyle paradigm, and the reader subconsciously cheers as she attempts to redeem her life and follow her own dream.
This is a beautifully written debut novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Harmless like You is sensitively written, cleverly plotted and has characters who although may not be endearing, are ultimately clearly understood through Rowan’s astute observation of the strangeness of human nature. While we may not sympathise with them, we can at least understand their motivations and reasoning. An excellent first novel, and worthy of the many acclamations and commendations she has received.