Friday 17 November 2023

Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang #Yellowface @kuangrf @BoroughPress #BookReview


Athena Liu is a literary darling and June Hayward is literally nobody.

White lies

When Athena dies in a freak accident, June steals her unpublished manuscript and publishes it as her own under the ambiguous name Juniper Song.

Dark humour

But as evidence threatens June’s stolen success, she will discover exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

Deadly consequences…

What happens next is entirely everyone else’s fault.

Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang was published in hardback on 25 May 2023 by The Borough Press. The paperback edition will be published on 23 May 2024. My copy was a gift from a friend. 

Well, if ever there was a book that has mixed reviews it is this one! Reading through them, I do see how some may criticise various aspects, but I find those criticisms are usually of the things that made me love this book so much!  We are all different readers, and I honestly believe that every single one of us reads a different story, even though it's the same book. I guess it's down to our own personal experiences and expectations. 

So, my thoughts on the book!  I've fluttered around on the edges of the publishing industry now for around fifteen years. I know lots of people, and in my time, I've heard many things. I do not repeat those things!  It's an industry, like any other, except that publishing seems to have created this impression of a dreamy world where everything is pretty and calm. 

June Hayward and Athena Liu have been associates for many years, since their time together at Yale. Not really friends, just people who are looking for the same things in life. Athena has achieved everything that they've both dreamed of. She is the author of the moment, everything she writes flies from the shelves, she's a publishing dream. She's also delicate and pretty and kind and supportive. June's own writing career has bombed, to put it bluntly.  Then, one night, they are together, just the two of them, in Athena's apartment. Athena doesn't make it to the next morning, she's dead. However, piled on her desk is her latest manuscript. Typed out manually, no back up, no computer file, nobody knows a thing about it. Not only does June call the paramedics, she also takes the manuscript. 

What follows is a troubled story. June re-writes a lot of the manuscript. After all, it was only a draft, and Athena wouldn't have wanted her last work to be published unedited. As it happens 'Athena's' last work is never published ..... but June's next book is a fly away success. Yes, despite being Athena's only friend, she publishes it under her own name. Yes, she does a hell of a lot of work on it, but it's not really hers. 

The story is historical fiction about Chinese manual workers. June is a white American woman.

June's life turns around. She has what Athena had, but that ghost of the dead girl sits on her shoulder and her thoughts are increasingly paranoid and erratic. She obsesses about Athena, persuading herself that she really wasn't that great, and it is her, June (or Juniper as she is now published as), that really made the book fly. 

People very rarely get away with things and June is caught out. For me, this was the hardest part of the book to read. The absolute toxicity of social media and those people who happily jump onto the pile on is atrocious and often hard to bear. Yes, this is a fictional story, but we've seen it haven't we? Those famous people who we cosset and love until one day they say a word out of place and then they are brought down, with scathing words, death threats, constant barrages of hate and venom spewed against them. This author has captured this perfectly, and I cringed at times, realising that this does happen and often. 

Rebecca Kuang is a successful author, I don't know what she's endured during her journey to publication, or even after her books have been published. She's from a minority ethnic group just like Athena. I am positive that she's experienced some of it, or seen it at least. 

There's a lot here about cultural appropriation and the author looks at both sides. There is a sense of intense loneliness about June and also about the Athena we are told about. Despite being surrounded by people, both of them appear to be solitary, seeking something, looking for happiness and not really knowing how to find it. 

Yellowface would be the perfect book for group discussion. It raises so many questions and can alter existing view points a great deal. There's tension, and some dark, dry humour. 

I loved it. I was engrossed by it. I know other people will disagree, that's fine. This is my review! 

Rebecca F. Kuang is the #1 New York Times bestselling and Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and
World Fantasy Award nominated author of Babel, the Poppy War trilogy, and Yellowface. 

She is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford. 

She is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

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