Harmless Like You: A Novel
“Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut is a beautifully textured novel, befitting the story of an artist.” —Washington Post
Written in startlingly beautiful prose, Harmless Like You is set across New York, Connecticut, and Berlin. At its heart is Yuki Oyama, a Japanese girl fighting to make it as an artist, and her struggle with her decision to leave her two-year-old son, Jay. As an adult, Jay sets out to find his mother and confront her abandonment.
An amazing debut and piercings look at the harm done when trying to do none
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan's first novel reads like anything but a maiden voyage, as she artfully jumps between times and tones to create a heart piercing but eventually hopeful portrait of highly flawed and conflicted human beings. The real feat of skill, though, is that despite their mistakes, their selfishness, and their injuring acts to each other, we always empathize and usually end up caring for if not loving each of them.
In Harmless Like You, we follow the two parallel plots covering two generations of a family caught at the intersection of multiple cultures.
The first is the story of Yuki, a Japanese-American teenager who—when faced with her father's company calling the family back to Japan— decides to stay in New York City after spending most of her life there, embracing a culture that, although now more home than the country of her parents, still renders her alone. We follow her as she falls into deeper and deeper love with the arts, all while trying to find a sense of home that invasively roots itself to her life through out the borderlands of the 1960s and 70s counter culture.
The second story is that if Jay, Yuki's biracial son and an a modern day art dealer, feeling flight and unease permeate his already neurotic life as one major milestone after another, from family deaths to new parenthood, causes him to return to searching out his estranged artist mother to find out why she abandoned him and his father and chose flight in the face of motherhood.
Hopefully, if he's lucky, he might find a new home for his elderly, hairless therapy cat.
Earnest vulnerability and fragility permeate every character in Harmless, while their defense mechanisms and processing of reality render equal amounts of surreal, sarcastic, and hilarious, and sublime observation of the self, the world, and the anxieties and hopes we project into it. Shockingly real at one moment and comedically flippant the next, Buchanan's characters learn to infuriate you as only your closest friends and loved ones can, and even those you want to hate pierce your empathy. As a reader of the world she has built and the characters in it, you'll find yourself loving people who infuriate you and pitying at least one abusive narcissist even as you pray for their exit.
From the poetry to the architecture and craft of her prose, the author shapes a world where the colors of a one character's colors and paints frame story, the fashion of another echoes the shredding arc of ambition, and the dealing and collection of another reflect the quest to become whole when, even if you're not sure you ever have been.
Even small choices of writing craft, like the choices between first and third person voice, reflect their character's alternate angles and realities with in the world.
Intersecting art, internationalism, parenthood, love, intersectionality, race, and diversity, Harmless Like You will leave you a bit hollowed out in the best way, and exactly what you need to move forward and try again, regardless of how much you've messed up the lives you live and those you love around you.
And it will leave you hungry to know when you'll be able to read more of the author's worlds.