Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

I have frequently bemoaned the fact that I don’t find thrillers thrilling or suspense novels very suspenseful. Maybe I’ve been looking at the wrong books. Yellowface by R. F. Kuang was suspenseful and thrilling – no murderers or stalkers involved – just a book deal and ambitious authors. Quite literally, a literary thriller.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of author June Hayward. The novel opens with June meeting her rival/ frenemy for drinks – fellow author Athena Liu. The women graduated from Yale together and published their debut novels the same year. But while June flounders, Athena goes from strength to strength – novels, Netflix deals, writers festivals.

When their evening out ends with June witnessing Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse, and steals Athena’s just-finished manuscript, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.

It’s just a lark at first. Just a writing exercise. I wasn’t rewriting the manuscript so much as seeing if I could fill in the blanks; if I had enough technical know-how to shade, fine-tune, and extrapolate until the picture was complete.

When the tinkering is complete, June sends the novel to her agent. There’s a bidding-war, and while the agent, editors and publishers busy themselves with rebranding June as Juniper Song (complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo), the doubts, justifications and enormity of what she’s done starts to sink in.

I’ve labored for years to learn my craft. Perhaps the core idea of this novel wasn’t mine, but I’m the one who rescued it, who freed the diamond from the rough.

As the story progresses, June works hard to protect her secret, escape Athena’s shadow, and manage the pressure to produce her next book. The tension and suspense builds with every page and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

So many thoughts about this novel. Firstly, funny that I chose this book immediately after my last read. Let’s just say there were some common themes* (but expressed very differently).

Secondly, Kuong walks the razor-thin line between satire and tackling themes of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation, all the while highlighting the fickle side of the publishing industry.

The hardest part is keeping track of all the characters. We change almost a dozen names to reduce confusion. Two different characters have the last name Zhang, and four have the last name Li. Athena differentiates them by giving them different first names, which she only occasionally uses, and other names that I assume are nicknames (A Geng, A Zhu; unless A is a last name and I’m missing something), or Da Liu and Xiao Liu, which throws me for a loop because I thought Liu was a last name, so what are Da and Xiao doing there? Why are so many of the female characters named Xiao as well? And if they’re family names, does that mean everyone is related? Is this a novel about incest? But the easy fix is to give them all distinct monikers, and I spend hours scrolling through pages on Chinese history and baby name sites to find names that will be culturally appropriate.

I found myself laughing at parts of this story and then thinking – ‘Should I be laughing at this…?’ And therein lies Kuong’s skill – every character is flawed, and nothing that happens is justifiable and yet, as you read, you find yourself keeping score between Athena and June – Athena with her Ivy League education, wealth, and a writing career that mines the traumatic history of ‘her people’ from a ‘homeland’ she had visited only a handful of times. And June, who is judged as the racist white woman using circumstances to justify her actions.

It all boils down to self-interest…If publishing is rigged, you might as well make sure it’s rigged in your favor.

This novel is being described as ‘meta’ and also examined/ criticized for the parallels with Kuong’s own life. I’ve no thoughts about either of those elements. All I know is that I couldn’t put it down. It would make a ripping book group choice.

4/5 If you were gripped by the real life Bad Art Friend in 2021, you will love this novel.

I received my copy of Yellowface from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

*cultural appropriation

The suddenly it’s midnight and we’re making pancakes from scratch, no box mix, and embellished with several dollops of pandan extract in the now neon-green batter because Athena Liu doesn’t do normal pancakes. “Like vanilla, but better,” she explains. “It’s fragrant and herbal, like you’re taking a big breath of forest. I can’t believe white people haven’t learned about pandan yet.”

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 7): Belfast 9°-17° and Melbourne 14°-17°.

14 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I’m looking forward to reading this at some point. The plot does sound similar to John Colapinto’s “About the Author” which I read about 20 years ago.

  3. This book has been getting a lot of attention, but yours is the first review I’ve read! The plot description reminds me in a way of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (although that one is straight-up thriller, without the satirical/social commentary elements). This one is going on my library wishlist for sure! Great review.

  4. I love books that lead me to think, “I found myself laughing at parts of this story and then thinking – ‘Should I be laughing at this…?’” My mom and I read together, and we both have a dark sense of humor. I already have this one on my TBR, but now I’m looking forward to it even more.

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