Rowan Hisayo Buchanan uses a similar technique to assess the moods of Yuki’s chapters in her debut novel Harmless Like You, but her colors are those of an artist. The header of “Quinacridone Gold,” the first chapter, reads: “A toasted yellow formulated for the automobile industry. It is the colour of streetlights on puddles at night, pickled yellow radish and duck beaks.” The colors’ descriptions, always rich in detail, may be unfamiliar to those of us who are not visual artists or students of hue, but the descriptions, which provide comparisons both concrete and abstract, make them significant to any reader.
At the beginning of the novel, it is 1968, and Yuki is 16 and living in New York. She is lonely, existentially so — she rarely thinks of or acknowledges it and ultimately both craves and embraces it. If Yuki herself had a color, it would be something opaque and sturdy, perhaps burnished sugi wood or the crusted blood-rust of New York brownstone bricks. There is something old-souled about her, even as she stumbles through the motions of adolescence. She is a detached observer in the midst of her own experiences, unable to fully connect with them. The daughter of Japanese parents — her father remembers the American internment camps and hates the United States as a result, while her mother attempts to make cheeseburgers with cottage cheese — Yuki is nonetheless thoroughly American, confused as to why a language would have four ways to introduce oneself according to the decorum of the situation. Japan is as unreal and abstract to her as the possibility of finding fashionable shoes that fit her size-four feet.
From the start, however, we know that Yuki will find connection of a sort, for she has a son and a husband, both estranged — this is laid out for us in the prologue, narrated by Jay, the son. He is the other main character of the book, which alternates between the third-person telling of Yuki’s story and Jay’s first-person narration. The tones of their chapters are vastly different, proving Buchanan’s versatility as a writer in her ability to both maintain distance from and be intimate with her characters. While Yuki remains somewhat mysterious, both to us and seemingly to herself, Jay is concrete, often painfully self-aware of his own shortcomings, which are many.
Jay’s chapters begin almost 50 years after Yuki’s. His father, Yuki’s husband, has just died in a car accident, only three months after the birth of Jay’s daughter Eliot. It was on the way to visit Eliot that the accident occurred, and Jay’s irritability toward his daughter, with whom he already didn’t feel the connection expected of a new parent, only worsens, perhaps because she inadvertently caused his father’s death. Tensions between Jay and his wife are high, and we quickly come to recognize that he is not the most sympathetic of characters, but this doesn’t matter. Few people in Harmless Like You are particularly likeable, which is another strength of the book; the novel’s inhabitants are still entirely relatable, their motives and methods so natural and understandable that even when entirely unexpected, readers are unlikely to avoid emotionally connecting with them.
While Jay takes up a significant portion of the novel, Yuki is its driving force. Jay knows who she is, in the age of Google, and so finds that she is a moderately successful artist living in Berlin. When his father’s last will and testament instructs that Yuki should receive the big Connecticut house that Jay grew up in, he decides to travel to Berlin — taking his hairless therapy cat, Celeste, who has been with him since he was a teenager. In delivering the papers requiring signatures, Jay finally gets to meet her.
How did Yuki arrive in Berlin? This is what her story builds up to, subtly exposing Yuki’s psychology. The impending move to Japan when she is 16 and a chance encounter with a gum-chewing blonde are what changes everything for Yuki. The self-named Odile is the unintentional savior. She and Yuki meet on the fire escape of their school building, where they’ve both skipped lunch, Yuki because she spent her lunch money on a pair of sunglasses, Odile because she doesn’t eat. They become fast friends, of the kind essential to adolescence, their relationship based on a willingness to take risks together rather than on interests or traits they have in common. Odile introduces Yuki to a lifestyle heretofore impossible for the latter girl to imagine: they starve together, meet men together, drink together, and dress together. And, finally, they live together, as Yuki convinces her parents to leave her in the United States to finish school and go to college here while they return to Japan.
Asking to be left behind is a curious request. On the one hand, it’s a classic teenage desire: independence from parents, freedom to live as an adult. But on the other, it’s hard to contemplate as a reality unless one’s parents are terrible or difficult in ways that Yuki’s are not. They are strict, but not bad parents, and it’s clear that they love her. Still, they agree to let her stay when she convinces them that she can live with Odile and her mother, Lillian, a bohemian writer who decides that she’s happy having Yuki around because she always wanted more kids: “First children are like first books. You imagine they’re a splinter of your soul. You overthink them. Later, you’re more haphazard, but often better.” (An astute observation from a debut novelist.)
Yuki’s move is an attempt to become more like Odile. She wants to fit in, to be sexy, to be blonder — in other words, whiter. This is the subtle message woven into Yuki’s first friendship, one that continues to thrive on Yuki’s envy and Odile’s need to have a sidekick more than actual pleasure in each other’s company. It is a hard, sometimes harsh, friendship, especially after Odile is raped by a photographer she and Yuki meet while hanging out at a park. Odile blames Yuki for not knowing about the rape, for letting it happen, as if she pushed Odile out the door, but Yuki never sits with this guilt. Guilt, in fact, is something Yuki never externally shows. As time passes and both she and Odile leave school, Yuki begins to fall for Lillian’s boyfriend, a sports journalist and secret poet named Lou. It is bad manners to fall for your host’s boyfriend’s advances, but Lou does something no one has ever done for Yuki before. He takes her to an art museum, and it is that more than anything else that leads to Yuki falling for him.
Though Yuki and Odile skipped school often, Yuki still attended art classes on Fridays because “[l]ight and shadow required no translation, and while drawing she forgot herself in the whisper of charcoal on paper.” As a girl who is always both visible and invisible — being Japanese and small and female means she is by turns exoticized or ignored, as marginalized people often are — Yuki forgets herself only when she is being the purposeful observer, creating art. So when Lou takes her to the Whitney, where Yuki first sees art that is abstract and performative and modern, she is moved to tears, expressing emotion that we haven’t yet seen from her. Art moves her in a way that means she can only be a true artist — which doesn’t equal being a good artist, but rather a person who can’t live without the presence of it in her life.
Even when Yuki quits school and moves out of Lillian’s apartment — decisions of an adult responsible for her actions — she remains in some respects a naïve little girl, accepting things that happen without much worry as to what will become of her. It is not surprising that Lou becomes abusive, since Yuki had heard and seen him hit Lillian before her, but Buchanan effectively shows how easily acceptable it can become to the abused person within the relationship. Even after meeting a young architect, Edison, who supports her art more than Lou ever could, Yuki doesn’t leave.
It’s hard to describe art well in fiction, but the concepts Buchanan gives Yuki to work with are both brilliant and brilliantly gimmicky, a nod to the fact that Yuki isn’t necessarily the artist she strives to be, but also that, more importantly, she is a working artist, taking risks in order to attempt to pass along ideas and trying them out even if they fail. The first show she puts up is a little on the nose, but as it’s being put together by a 21-year-old, this is more than forgivable. In a series of photographs, Yuki presents girls, all the girls she isn’t and hasn’t been — it’s hard to imagine her ever being as carefree as any of them:
The Upper East Side schoolgirls wore boaters and neat maid-tied braids. But coming home at the end of the day, they were as frayed and excitable as little girls anywhere. The Puerto Rican girls had their ears pierced, and she caught the glimpse of gold between the curls. Little girls played jump rope hopscotch in Harlem, a game that involved skipping while having to hit your foot in just the right square. The Irish girls, in their Sunday dresses, concealed silver jacks in their fists.
All these girls have something that Yuki has never had, and perhaps never will. In the final picture of the series is an American darling–type girl with ringlets and big eyes, holding the newspaper with the famous picture of the “Napalm Girl” on it. The series is called “Harmless Like You,” an echo of something Lou once said about “harmless little girls like” Yuki being killed in the Vietnam War. The ignorance of his comment — Yuki is Japanese, not Vietnamese — unintentionally spurred Yuki into creating this series of racially diverse girls, with the whitest of them holding the atrocious image of pain and fear.
Many years later, when Jay visits her in Germany, we get another glimpse of Yuki’s art. This time, there is a series of photographs of white foods on white plates, the only food that Yuki ate for a period of time. The show’s title is “Shit’s Still Brown.” The message may be crude, but it’s also deeply affecting and speaks to the quiet preoccupation Yuki has with race, both her own and that which she yearned to be in order to fit in. Buchanan doesn’t make this the main driving issue of the novel, but it is nevertheless important, especially as Americans in particular tend to think of Asians as “almost white,” as the “token minority,” and lump them together as all being from the same vast place, Asia, as if that is a signifier of some shared monolithic culture.
Jay, half-Japanese and half-white via his father, understands that this is not so, even though his Japanese mother wasn’t in the picture since he was quite small. Mimi, the woman he married, is also biracial, white and Chinese, and people in college, where they met, commented on how similar they looked. Even they think they look alike, something about their halfness bringing their features closer together than if they were all white, Japanese, or Chinese. Their relationship is portrayed as having been perfect until the impending parenthood, at which point they began to fight, Jay resentful of the child taking his wife’s attention, Mimi angry at Jay’s detachment. But there’s a clear reason for Jay’s inability to connect to even the idea of his daughter, much less to the squirming bundle of humanity suddenly thrust into his life. The abandonment by his mother hit him hard, but when we’re given access to Yuki’s moment of disappearance, we see that it was far from the kind of leave-taking he’s imagined it to be. There is kindness along with selfishness in Yuki’s choice.
Looking at the book as a whole, there are so many mature notions of patience, sacrifice, and terrible sadness that it’s startling to realize how young the author of the book is — she was 27 when the novel came out in the United Kingdom, younger when she wrote it. Buchanan must be, like Yuki herself, an old soul. But unlike Yuki, there is no doubt about how good an artist she is, for this book demonstrates that she is an excellent one.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer and book critic, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Guardian, and Tin House.