One of the reasons why this book blog is called LonesomeReader is I want it to be an ongoing exploration of what loneliness means. People who can be termed as introverted or shy have a tendency to feel greater degrees of loneliness as they aren’t able to easily connect to others or socialize as naturally as more extroverted groups. Many who feel this way think of themselves as indistinct and unnoticed, standing on the sidelines or a wallflower. “Harmless Like You” begins with Yuki, an adolescent girl living in New York City in the late 1960s. She’s someone who often holds her feelings inside, but they seep out in creative ways through different artistic mediums with how she experiences colour and sees the world in a distinct way. The novel flips between the decades of Yuki’s development as a person and artist and a time in 2016 when a young man named Jay travels to Germany to inform his estranged mother Yuki about his father’s death and the house that was left to her. Their stories combine to form a powerfully emotional tale about family connections, self esteem and personal expression.
As a girl, Yuki thinks of herself as so invisible that not even the perverted man who flashes women on the street notices her. Because she sees herself as so separate from others she feels she has no impact on them. But a quiet presence can have just as powerful or a greater effect than someone who makes themselves loudly known. Since she’s not able to express her feelings to people her silence sometimes acts as a destructive force towards others and herself. It leads to the dissolution of her relationships with her parents who move to Japan, her only childhood friend Odile who pursues a modelling career and a man who later tries to earnestly love her. There’s a moving scene after her first sexual experience when she recalls her father hitting her knuckles when she was forced to memorize poetry, but she’s not able to speak about this with her partner. Opportunities for nurturing emotional connections are lost because Yuki is unable to express how she feels.
Her silence also leads her to not tell anyone about the abuse she receives within a difficult destructive relationship. There are strong descriptions of how “she’d been knocked out of herself. A screaming ghost girl, with teeth of orange glass, hovered above the body.” Yuki develops a fractured sense of self which makes her emotionally withdraw even more from other people. Yet she pursues further techniques for trying to artistically render her complex feelings in painting and photographs. Looking at a photograph of civilian girl victims in Vietnam, Yuki’s partner remarks how they are harmless like her. This makes a deep impact on Yuki in how she is seen externally by some white Americans to be a completely benign presence. The novel shows a complex understanding of how passive people subtly enact their own influence.
Yuki’s son Jay is a new father who has inherited some of his mother’s traits. Emotional connections are difficult for him as well – especially with his newborn son of whom he remarks “I’d never dreamed of leaving my wife until this creature came into our lives.” He only achieves a sense of emotional stability in his connection with his elderly cat Celeste. Having never known his mother, he’s kept inside many feelings about her and their broken family until he travels to Germany to finally meet with her. This encounter allows for the possibility of more open emotional connections in both of their lives.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel contains a lot of moving descriptions of how colour relates to emotion. At times Yuki experiences a synaesthesia so when she’s taken to a movie cinema the buttered popcorn connects with her partner: “The sweet yellow smell was Lou.” Many chapter headings begin with a description of a particular colour and its complex meaning. In a similar fashion the way Yuki experiences colour tempers how she relates to and feels the world around her. This creates a sophisticated portrait of an artistic sensibility and the story cleverly shows the influence introverted personalities have upon the world. “Harmless Like You” is an extremely moving and imaginative novel.