Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Could he understand that paddling through the translucent hours of her life had exhausted her?
— Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Harmless Like You
‘Shinyū?’ Yuki had never heard the word before. Her Japanese was like that—things about which her parents did not speak did not exist.
— Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Harmless Like You

I read Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan with commitment, from start to finish today, and found myself interested and compelled sometimes, but I never grew to care much for the characters. That is because it is a dark book based on a flawed mother and son, with very little pause for positivity, and I was not alone in this realization. However, I did come to appreciate this book more after reading this review, which focuses on some of the author's motivations for writing this story: She wanted the narrators to be not-white and she wanted to write about how children inherit their parents' identities, even when the parents do not stay.

There was some beautiful prose in this book, that I glossed over because of my own time pressure to start and finish this book today. Sun buttering the sidewalk - things of this sort that, as you were reading, you thought, oh, yes, that's nice. The book starts in the late 60s, when a teenager named Yuki finally makes a friend in America and decides she does not want to return to Japan with her family. Through the 70s and 80s, she forges a life in New York City alone, seeking acknowledgment through her art and through an abusive relationship until she is saved and nurtured by a kind man who had always wanted to take care of her. They have a child and a home. But she is more used to a life of depravation, aloneness and violence, so she leaves her son and husband for Germany.

Meanwhile, in present time, we get to know the son in a bit less detail: How he loves his wife, but is uncomfortable around their infant daughter. He too is contemplating leaving them, and acts on it in small ways. When his father dies, he has to travel to Germany to give the mother who abandoned him the deed to the house she left years before. He brings with him his hairless cat, a medical cat, prescribed to him when he was a teenager for his anxiety and fainting. The bond between him and his cat is my favorite part of this book. I do not think I have ever read a book where a hairless cat (named Celeste) features so prominently.

But the rest of the story did not read like something new. This was a nice, albeit dark, read. It is a book about suffering that you won't necessarily suffer through in reading. Also, it is somehow, if you read for it, a book about hope, about connection and about discovery. Blood binds us, even when we can't draw the lines of our mothers' faces with certainty.