Book Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan


Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (Sceptre, 2016)

I’ll start off by saying that I almost gave up on this book halfway through. I’m glad I didn’t but it isn’t a long novel and it took me most of it to feel truly engaged.

The story is divided between two characters and times. Yuki is a teenager in New York in the 1970s. Her family is Japanese, living a fairly isolated life in America due to her father’s job. Yuki is shy and lonely but just before her family is supposed to return to Japan, she makes her first friend. Somehow (and somewhat unbelievably) she convinced her parents to let her stay in Japan, living with her friend Odile and her inattentive mother. We follow Yuki over the next years of her life, as she struggles with her desire to be an artist, drops out of school, and falls into a sort of love.

The other section is narrated by Jay, whose father has just died. Jay and his wife have recently had a baby and Jay hates it. Both the lifestyle of parenthood and, seemingly, the baby itself. This is where the book lost me. I recognize that not everyone enjoys parenthood, that the early months are especially hard and that transition doesn’t always come easily. My problem with Jay is that he’s so completely unlikeable in his dislike of his daughter. He tells the reader that he loves his wife but his thoughts (and actions) surrounding her are so negative and unforgiving. His attitude seems to be one of having no idea how he ended up with a baby, as if he were tricked into the entire endeavour. He really doesn’t have a single redeeming characters and I didn’t care a bit what happened to him.

It’s clear from early on that Yuki is Jay’s mother, the mother who ran off from Jay and his father when Jay was very young. This brings me to my other problem with the novel. The author apparently cannot conceive that anyone would ever enjoy having children. The book is populated only with characters who are happy to be separated from their offspring. It’s pretty depressing.

Yuki, at least, is imbued with greater depth than Jay and while her reasons for abandonment are never entirely clear, she is portrayed as at least loving him. Something Jay seems unable to feel for his child.

For a first time writer, Buchanan has some strong work here. While occasionally guilty of over-writing and using four words where one would do, there are also glimmers of real talent and story-telling here. My main problem overall is really that the author feels very young to me and I can’t help but wonder if this story would be different coming from someone with more life experience. Only time can tell.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan”

  1. I read this book a long time ago and felt much the same way you did. Rowan does seem a bit young so I wasn’t surprised that she wrote as if no one really enjoys being a parent. Although I don’t necessarily find that unbeliebvable, more so just a theme she wanted to explore more.

    1. I don’t find it unbelievable at all that some people don’t enjoy being parents and I think an honest exploration of that would make for very interesting fiction. Somehow though, this book ended up feeling more like the author couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever like being a parent. I would have been more forgiving if there had been a greater balance in the way parenthood was portrayed, I think, like if there had been even one happy parent in the book. (Maybe she was going for this with Jay’s dad? I didn’t feel like we saw him much as a parent though…)

  2. This sounds like quite a depressing read. I love being a parent, although I know not everyone does, but a whole book of unhappy people sounds pretty grim.

    1. I love it too but also understand it’s not for everyone. I think the author comes from the very opposite perspective and can’t quite envision that anyone would enjoy being a parent! The book is pretty grim…

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