Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Harmless Like You

The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway.

– Opening sentence

Harmless Like You may be one of the most haunting books I have ever read. In that sense, it reminded me a bit of Stoner, another book who’s main character lives a painfully slow and lonely life.

The story is told by two narrators, Yuki and Jay, who’s stories are separated by fifty years yet are combined in an unbreakable way; mother and son.

Yuki is a high-schooler in New York in the 60s. Born in Japan, her english-speaking father was assigned a position in America, so Yuki has grown-up with only her parents word for how wonderful Japan is (and how they can’t wait to go back).

However, Yuki doesn’t want to go back. She has no memories of Japan, and when her parents speak in Japanese and talk about their old life it feels alien. Not that she’s particularly happy in the states, either. Yuki has no friends; she is invisible at school, rejected by the others for not having the same face.

But then she meets Odile, in her usual hiding spot, who becomes her first (and only) friend. When Odile suggets that Yuki moves in with her instead of moving to Japan, Yuki agrees, and promises her parents that she will make a good life for herself and make them proud.

However, Yuki is naive and unsure. Used to being invisible, she doesn’t know how the world works, and her friendship with Odile leads to an eating disorder, an older abusive boyfriend, and an even bigger sense of isolation.

The second narrator, Jay, is about to be a first-time dad. However, despite loving his wife more than anything, Jay is struggling with the change. Miranda – Mimi – becomes revolting to Jay during her pregnancy. The swelling, the physical changes, the mood swings – everything is disgusting and the couple don’t have sex during the entire pregnancy.

Then, just as the baby is born, Jay’s father dies in an unexpected car crash. This brings on a fresh bought of anxiety (Jay has a medical cat to stop him from fainting), as Jay was banking on his father to teach him how to be a good dad himself. His own mother left when Jay was only a child, and he’s worried that the trait might be genetic – especially as he hasn’t experienced any paternal instincts towards his newborn son.

So when he is forced to face his mother over the deeds of the house left in his father’s will, Jay is seriously considering never going back. Especially after he cheated on Mimi while she was heavily pregnant. Yeah, that happened.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Harmless Like You, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I found. Expertly written, Harmless Like You explores a vast number of themes weaved into the narrative, including abandonment, parenthood, hereditary trauma and mental illness. Some of these are more subtle than others; the eating disorder is not directly mentioned, but it’s subtle reference reminds the reader that there is something deeper going on with these characters; we don’t know the whole story.

Yuki’s life is particularly difficult to follow. As I was reading I was thinking,

  • Can you really be that naive?
  • How could you stay once he’s hit you?
  • Are you really that passive?
  • Is it really that easy to walk away from your own child?

Some questions that seem simple to answer at first, become more complicated in Harmless Like You. The characters are real and relatable, and it can be difficult to know whether to empathise or demonise.

Yuki is an extremely interesting character, and although unlikeable she can be easy to empathise with and even relate to. We’ve all found ourselves in certain situations and thought “how did I get here?”.

At its core, I think Harmless Like You is about finding your way in life. There isn’t an instruction manual, and more often than not you are forced to make decisions on your own. At the time it is impossible to know what the effects of those decisions will be, and one day you might be faced with the stark reality of an old decision – buy you just got to keep going.

Harmless Like You will be a gift that keeps on giving – each and every time I read it I know I will come away with a new thought or angle (or judgement!). I think it’s an important read for everyone; you’ll find yourself wanted to shake Yuki and slap Jay, but then you’ll learn to accept and love them both for who they are.

I love you all.

– Final sentence

4 Stars (4 / 5)


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