Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel about identity, abuse, art, and familial bonds, packs several punches. Harmless Like You is a breathtakingly crafted story of mother and son. First, we meet Yuki Oyama, a teenage Japanese-American immigrant, caught in the cross heirs of identity in an early 1970’s New York. Her father has been on a years-long exile to America for work when he is finally called back. Torn between leaving the only land she’s ever known, and losing her family, Yuki ultimately decides to remain in the Big Apple, with her only friend, Odile, the beautiful and cunning aspiring model. Then, we meet Jay, Yuki’s adult son in 2016 Connecticut and Berlin. Still dealing with the abandonment of his mother when he was just two years old, Jay enters into fatherhood, reeling with discontentment and frustration. As the novel builds, Hisayo Buchanan seeks to answer “how does a mother desert her own son?”.
Full of beautiful, literary prose, Hisayo Buchanan’s novel is hard to get into. Once there, however, I was hooked. Her voice is fresh, intelligent, and compelling. The characters are well crafted, and, unlike other books detailing abuse and abandonment, feel real and consistent. Only Jay’s father feels forced for the narrative, but the other characters don’t excuse his behavior, and call him for being unlike a human, flawed and difficult, making the improbability of his character feel possible.
Hisayo Buchanan’s biggest asset though, is her climatic structure. She arrives with a big sense of occasion and gradually and consistently builds the action, never dragging anything out, or forcing us to choke down the complexity of a fleeing mother in the last 20 pages of the novel. Authors I’ve read in the past err on one side or the other, but Harmless Like You splits the difference, making this one of the best crafted novels I’ve read in a while.
And yet, as with any debut, there is room for improvement. At times, it feels Harmless Like You is too big, trying to do too much. While Hisayo Buchanan’s ideas are breathtaking and well argued, they can fell a bit pretentious and awkwardly placed. Similarly, she crammed a lot of themes into this book, all of which were wonderfully crafted, but occasionally felt overwhelming.
Nevertheless, I read Harmless Like You in two blissful, desiring sittings, and wouldn’t have put the book down for anything. It is a breathtaking, accomplished novel, so rich and full, your next read will dull by comparison. For a debut, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has much to be proud of. (4 Stars).
Pick up Harmless Like You when it’s released in February 2017.
ARC provided by publisher via a Goodreads giveaway.