Book Review: Rebecca F. Huang’s Yellowface

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. The premise is so, so good.

Quite a while ago, a friend posted on Facebook (Hi Harsukh) that she just didn’t get the book, and I wondered why, with it seeming to be so straightforward, she didn’t get it.

This was in my mind, actually, the whole time I was reading this, as I was thinking: well, I think I know what the point is, what she’s getting at. And then less and less. And then by the end, I felt: that did NOT come together for me.

So, while the author may have been trying to create commentary or satire on diversity in publishing and what it’s like to be a young, ambitious author, everything is spelled out so clearly and simply, with a narrator that is unreliable in an uninteresting way and both repulsive and one-dimensional, that I was left very unsatisfied.

The rich themes just didn’t take off and I wasn’t grabbed by the writing. And this isn’t because of the author’s identity or the themes. What I love about some books is how I’m pulled into an unexpected world because of how much I love the writing and characters, say Jennifer Egan’s Candy House or Alice Munro’s sometimes similar protagonists, a world away from my life, times and identity but fascinating.

I found a number of prominent positive reviews, a mixed one (in the New York Times!) and two reviews that said it better than what I could.

‘Yellowface,’ a satire of race and publishing, falls into its own trap.
Some books have unreliable narrators. The narrator of R.F. Kuang’s new novel is just unbelievable. Review by Zoe Hu


The Diversity Elevator: On R. F. Kuang’s “Yellowface”
Jul 13
Written By Terry Nguyen

The comments on Ms Hu’s article are perhaps better satire than in Yellowface, criticising the Washington Post for finding an Asian-American PhD student to write the review, without acknowledging the very strong writing and arguments of the review, or (cringe) some comment on how Chinese people are historically racist.

In any case, I don’t write and post book reviews so often these days, but I thought doing one on Goodreads would allow me to repost it here to my blog, let my friend know, ‘I hear ya’, and write on a topic I’m interested in!

YellowfaceYellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh, I so wanted to like this book.

As a gay Chinese-Canadian writer, I’ve been very interested in questions about diverse voices, and how we tell our stories, and who has the ability, or right, to tell stories by inhabiting characters outside of our identities.

And the marketing of this book is astonishing: great cover, great title, great pitch.

What I have to say is that the book is very readable. Even while repulsed by the protagonist, the book jumps along quickly, in short chapters, and I read it in record time (for me, these days, since I read at a far slower pace than in my younger days).

But I kept waiting for the book to tell me something I didn’t know. Writing is a challenging career. Some diverse voices are being celebrated. People are racist. People are bad friends. Social media is poisonous.

I waited and waited, as the literary thriller slash satire turned into a ghost horror story. Then. Is that all there is?

Other reviewers have written more insightfully than me about the book, such as Zoe Hu in the Washington Post and Terry Nguyen in the Cleveland Review of Books, and I don’t think it’s terrible (except perhaps the continued lazy signalling of the protagonist’s cultural insensitivity by repeated references to Chinese food as greasy) but I wanted better, and I suppose I am jealous that a book could be so successful when it’s not that good.

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