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Harmless Like You, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel ‘Harmless Like You’ is both subtle and striking. It tells the story of a Japanese-born aspiring artist growing up in New York between 1968 and 1983, and that of a newly married art dealer across late 2016. The narrative is set almost entirely in New York State, with a brief though critical exchange taking place in Berlin. We are presented with Yuki’s time in New York between the ages of about 10 and 30, having lived there for all of her re-collectable life after her parents emigrated from Japan, and where she remains long after her family’s return. We also hear the story of Jay, a recently married art dealer who is struggling with the recent death of his father, and his abandonment by his mother – Yuki – as a young child. These accounts are presented in tandem, the narrative alternating between them despite their separation in time. Each faces similar questions of both past – Yuki’s relationship with her Japanese heritage, Jay’s developing response to his abandonment – and future – the idea of parental responsibility, with Jay having recently become a father.

Yuki’s first photography exhibition (also called ‘Harmless Like You’) takes place in a friend of friend’s diner. It depicts young girls in all of their diversity, Irish, Puerto Rican, playing, working, and finally an image of an American child – the whitest of them all – holding a newspaper featuring the “Napalm girl”, victim of the Vietnam war. The idea is to show the intrinsic humanity of all parties, subject and viewer, on all levels. Her boyfriend Lou considers this too ‘easy’. He isn’t entirely wrong, but perhaps that was never the point. The exhibition, and the novel, are not supposed to be clever in the conventional sense. They instead show us humanity in all directions – the ‘you’ of both titles is not conversational, but interpretive. It is interesting then that no matter the perspective, the narrative never strays from the 1st person personal. We cannot take anything for granted.

This is what makes the narrators’ characterisations most intriguing, particularly that of Lou, who is the last character that you might describe as ‘harmless’ given his physical abuse of our protagonist. Yuki tries to understand him, even retrospectively, describing him as “gentle” at his sweetest and “coaxing” at his worst. Rather than experiencing anger, she becomes the “ghost girl”, a “body”.  He buys her an apple, and his kiss tastes “crisp and sweet”. Her words disambiguate his attacks, further complicating the thesis of harmlessness; where is the line between humanising and over-justification? Likewise, Yuki’s response to the abuse of herself does not correlate with her response to that of her own violence:

“She smacked her forehead with the edge of her knuckles. She’d hit her husband. Being hit by Lou had been like searing coffee. It burned, jangled her nerves, but at least she felt awake. Hitting Edison had sent her hand dead. She moved her fingers, just to check she still could.”

Indeed, her ‘imperfect’ humanity is why she separates herself from her own child. Humanity isn’t “easy” or simple; it is far more complex than the title belies.

The small moments are what gives this novel its strength. I found the exchanges between Yuki and Edison after their marriage particularly striking in their complexity. Yuki describes her sexual encounters with Edison, a man who Yuki’s deep admiration of both intensifies and sours over the course of their time together:

“Sex was the only time he was violent, but Yuki suspected all men of having some measure of violence. Some clubbed you with silence, and some relied on their fists. Feeling Edison’s fury, she was relieved, no longer becalmed in false gentleness.

When he was done, her tea was cold.”

It is this kind of perceptiveness, and at times naivety, that resonates throughout Buchanan’s writing in a manner deliberately difficult to pin down. I found Yuki’s perspective the more intriguing, though Jay’s is likewise littered with details that invoke this ambiguous relationship with the characters. His attachment to his hairless support cat Celeste, for example, bears particular weight for how he interacts with those around him.

In short, then, the novel produces more questions than it answers about the nature of what it is to be harmless and human, primarily asking whether it is our human reality to pass on pain, and if this can be forgiven. Buchanan’s work is a remarkable and artistic test of readers’ empathy.

Sarah Gilbert

Harmless Like You is published by Sceptre