I was really surprised to discover that Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan was her first book ever published. It’s beautifully written in the way that only students of creative writing can accomplish, which isn’t a slight against her, it’s simply an observation that she’s clearly studied literature in many forms. Take this short quote for instance:
“Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood…” (p. 1 of the uncorrected proof)
Butter and sun? Seriously, how do you even equate those two things, why would you even think of them together? I have no idea how she came up with this, but I absolutely loved this sentence, and it’s a great example of how the rest of the novel is written. Her prose is flowery, but she doesn’t dwell on insignificant setting details that trip up the narrative, her writing is still direct and focused.
So what’s this book about? Essentially it’s about the life of one character, Yuki Oyama, who was born in Japan but spent most of her life in America. Her parents eventually move back to Japan, but allow Yuki to stay in New York City with a friend to complete her education. But the book actually begins with a short chapter describing Yuki’s future: a meeting with her estranged son, who she abandons when he is only two years old. The majority of the book is dedicated to her life, but we get snippets of her son Jay’s life as well. Only towards the very end of the story do we witness the ‘abandonment’ scene, and begin to piece together Yuki’s reasons for leaving her family.
Yuki is a fascinating character, full of conflicting emotions and puzzling actions. She seems to be at her happiest and most fulfilled while in an abusive relationship, but she is an extremely intelligent and observant woman. I don’t know if Buchanan is a mother or not, but she did an impressive job of nailing the conflicting emotions that a first time mother experiences when her child is born. Yuki is filled with love for her son Jay, but she’s fallen into a state of depression so bad that she forgets to shower for days on end. But this isn’t a story of postpartum depression, because Yuki seems to suffer from this fit of sadness whenever her life is comfortable. Now you see why I find Yuki so fascinating!
Her son Jay is an annoying little man who I don’t find much sympathy for. He cheats on his wife, and is obsessed with a wrinkly cat named Celeste. I know, of all people you think I would be able to find a kinship with a fellow cat lover, alas, I couldn’t see past Jay’s selfishness, even if his mother did leave him when he was little. So there you have it, Harmless Like You made me feel lots of things, so I’m comfortable recommending it to other lovers of literary fiction waiting to discover their next favourite author.