‘Harmless Like You’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan tells the story of Yukiko Oyama, a teenager in New York in 1968 whose parents move back to Japan after emigrating to the United States when she was a child. She decides to stay in New York with her friend Odile to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. Many years later, her son Jay, who has recently become a father himself, travels to Berlin to find his estranged mother and inform Yuki that his father has died and has left the house to her in his will. The journey also leads Jay to discover why Yuki abandoned him suddenly when he was just two years old.
The chapters alternate between late 1960s and early 1970s New York during the early years of Yuki’s artistic endeavours and the present day when Jay is attempting to track her down. The reader learns early on that Yuki has built a successful career for herself but there are other pertinent questions relating to the decades in between which have yet to be answered, the reasons for which are not revealed until much later including, crucially, the events which led Yuki to leave her husband and son all those years ago. It is gradually revealed how Yuki’s relationships have been repeatedly influenced over the years by her inability to openly express how she feels. Jay has also been hugely affected by his mother’s long-term absence, to the extent that he feels he has more of an emotional connection with his seventeen-year-old cat Celeste than he does with his partner Mimi.
Many of the themes which Buchanan explores in ‘Harmless Like You’ including the links between identity, alienation, cultural heritage and creativity are fairly standard, well-worn territory for modern literary fiction. However, her subtle debut novel is carefully constructed with a lightness of touch. The most striking thing about ‘Harmless Like You’ is the way in which all of the different elements from the dialogue to the tiniest details of character development are all so well measured and balanced against each other. Buchanan paints a convincing portrait of a young woman caught between two cultures and for a novel largely concerned with the art world, it is also pleasingly unpretentious and avoids both heavy-handed commentary and bland sentiment.
Having already been longlisted for the Jhalak Prize, ‘Harmless Like You’ is an assured debut novel and I think it stands a good chance of being nominated for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist due to be announced next month.