Read This Book: ‘Harmless Like You’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

by Erika W. Smith

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You opens, after a prologue, with a flasher. It’s 1968 and our protagonist, a teenage girl named Yuki, is walking to her high school in New York City. When she sees a man flash a passing office girl, she stops for a moment and notices, “He was ignored by this chignonned woman, and she, Yuki, was invisible to him, a man who flaunted the shriveled purple stump of his penis on the first cold day of fall.”

Buchanan (who, full disclosure, I know!) examines gender, race, sex, belonging, art, parenting, mental health, domestic violence, and so much more as she tells the two interconnecting stories of Yuki and, in a flash-forward to the present, Yuki’s adult son, Jay. Yuki was born in Japan but moved to New York as a child; when her parents return to their home country, she decides to stay in New York to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. She is quickly caught in toxic relationships with her friend, the aspiring model Odile, and an older man, the attractive and dangerous Lou. Jay is half-Japanese and half-white, and grew up without his mother around; an art gallery owner struggling to stay connected with his wife and newborn daughter, he uknowingly navigates many of the same struggles that Yuki does. We follow Yuki’s coming-of-age and Jay’s adjustment to life as a father as their two paths careen towards each other.

harmlesslikeyoucoversHarmless Like You‘s US cover (left) and UK cover (right)

Appropriate to her artistic characters, Buchanan writing is vividly descriptive, both of colors — each of Yuki’s sections gets its title from a different shade — and of textures. Jay’s beloved pet, an elderly hairless cat, gets plenty of vivid description (and, for the first time, made me want to pet one).

The book’s title comes from Yuki’s artwork. After Lou tells Yuki, of the Vietnam War, “I think the cowards are the ones over there killing harmless little girls like you,” Yuki — who is Japanese, not Vietnamese, and not harmless or a child, either — photographs little girls of color on the streets of New York before ending with the photo of a blonde, white girl holding a copy of the New York Times with a photo of the famous ‘Napalm Girl,’ Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

Harmless Like You, released in the UK last August and in the US this February, is quickly racking up accolades: a New York Times Editor’s Choice review; stellar reviews in the Boston Globe, NPR, and elsewhere; and short- and long-listed for a ton of prizes. So read it now! 

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