HARMLESS LIKE YOU by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
WW Norton, 2017
Harmless Like You is the multigenerational story of Yuki, growing up in New York in the 1960s, and her son, Jay, who she abandoned as a baby. Their stories move forward together in parallel timelines, one beginning in 1968 and one beginning in 2016, culminating in a reunion that we know is coming ever since the prologue. In the meantime we explore the reasons that led to Yuki’s abandonment of Jay, and how Jay has learned to cope with her desertion, especially as he now has a newborn infant himself.
I have a lot of thoughts about this book – not all of them good, despite the 4 star rating. I’ll start with the downsides: (1) The book begins with a very hasty plot point which to me reeks of a plot device (Yuki’s parents agreeing to let her live in New York at 16 years old with a friend they’d only met once, while they go back to Japan to live – there are absolutely reasons for a family to do something this radical, but those reasons go mostly unexamined here). (2) It took me ages to get invested in Yuki – I think the third-person POV really serves to hold her at an arm’s length from the reader. (3) The resolution is a bit too neat, and there’s some abrupt character development at the end which to me felt unearned.
But when it’s good, it’s great. When Yuki’s personality begins to develop (starting with a really beautiful and heartrending scene where she sees an exhibit at the Whitney and is overcome with sadness), she’s a wonderful and complex protagonist, whose journey is at times devastating. What surprised me though is how utterly brilliant I found Jay’s character to be. Here we have a pair of characters who don’t want to be parents, but they each find themselves in that role anyway. Jay is not a particularly palatable character – he loves his bald cat more than his newborn baby – and while some readers may think he’s a monster, Hisayo Buchanan doesn’t pass judgement in a way that I found sort of refreshing.
This is one of those books where I think I liked the overall impression it left me with more than I liked reading the book itself. It’s the kind of book that elucidates harsh truths about parenthood, growing up, art, and identity, and it leaves you feeling sort of sad and hollow – but for whatever reason, that’s a feeling I like. This is one of those thought-provoking books whose characters will probably stay with me.