To make up for the dearth of blog posts this year, I’m returning to my twelve days of Christmas book recommendations: a daily blog throughout the rest of December in which I share with you the twelve best books I read during 2017, counting down to the best of them all on Christmas Eve.
As always, these aren’t all books published this year but they are all books that I would heartily recommend you go out and buy or borrow. (That was a sneaky prompt to use your local library.)
Let’s see what my very favourite book was in 2017…
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Well, here we are. Christmas Eve. The presents are wrapped*, the fire is roaring, Die Hard is on the TV. Wouldn’t you like one final book recommendation before Christmas Day?
(*Not all of the presents are wrapped.)
Well, let me tell you about my favourite book of the year. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel, Harmless Like You, moves between the late 1960s/early 1970s – where Japanese teenager Yuki is finding her way through life in America – and the present day, where Jay, the son she abandoned as a baby, is seeking out Yuki following the death of his father, who raised him single-handedly.
When 17 year old Yuki’s parents move back to Japan, she chooses to stay in New York to follow her dream of becoming an artist, living with her best friend Odile, an aspiring model, and Odile’s mother Lillian, a writer of romantic novels. Yuki assures her parents she will finish school but, after they leave, she drops out and begins working as a receptionist.
Still a teenager, she finds herself in a relationship with Lillian’s boyfriend, Lou, a sports journalist and would-be poet who introduces her to modern art she’s never experienced before but which moves her profoundly and inspires her own art. But Lou is also a violent bully, something that doesn’t surprise Yuki, since she witnessed him beating Lillian, but which she finds hard to leave behind. When she finally does, it’s with the most breathtaking line: “Why was it that when a fist slammed into your face, it was a jump-start, but heartbreak was a leak in the gas tank?”
Forty years later, Jay is an art dealer, aware of his mother’s success as an artist now based in Berlin, but still estranged from her. He is a new father himself, but finds that he is unable to feel any kind of paternal instinct towards his new daughter. His relationship with his wife is also strained, although he regrets a recent one-night stand with an artist he represents. Jay is not a particularly sympathetic character but one whose motivation and behaviours are completely plausible. Yuki, too, is such a fully-realised and engaging character, I wanted to keep reading about her beyond the novel’s end.
Harmless Like You draws out the consequences of abandonment, of not quite feeling like you belong, across generations. Both Yuki and Jay inherit and are informed by the pain of the generation that went before them. The novel is, in parts, desperately sad – Yuki’s unhappiness as a young mother is particularly palpable – but Buchanan’s writing is absolutely glorious.
There is a particularly wonderful feature of this novel that I loved: each of Yuki’s chapters begins with the definition and description of a paint colour or pigment. This might sound like an exercise in creative writing but the descriptions are extraordinarily rich and often unusual, and extend through the chapter, so that whole sections are imbued with colour. That’s what’s remained with me long after the end of this novel: its sadness but also its colour.