Washington Square, in New York.

Review | Book review: Harmless Like You is marked by its sensuousness

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan creates a serious, sad and beautifully written first novel, set in New York in 1968 and about one woman’s burning need to be an artist

Harmless Like You
By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan


Harmless Like You is the first novel by 26-year-old Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, who describes herself as a “Japanese, British, Chinese, American … fiction writer, illustrator, teacher and list-maker”. I don’t know how good her lists are, but if they are anything like her prose they should be quite some­thing. Our heroine, in 1968 New York, is 16-year-old Yuki. On the first page she passes a hot-dog-eating flasher, before meeting her friend Odile.

The Summer Festival for Peace in New York, in 1970.
It is the sensuousness of Buchanan’s writing, however, that grabs the attention: “All year, misery had sloshed under her skin. It was so thick, it should have pimpled her pores.” Yuki is left alone in America after her family returns to Japan: she is forbidden to go near Washington Square because her strict father disapproves of the chess­boards. With the Vietnam war raging to a soundtrack of late Beatles, Yuki falls pregnant, but her burning ambition to be an artist compels her to abandon her child. The two characters and stories dovetail elegantly, close to something like redemption: “She would find a way of loving that didn’t maim.” A serious, sad and beautifully written debut.