‘Yellowface’ – R.F. Kuang

Though I have a number of books by Kuang on my TBR pile, this seemed an interesting one to start off my 2023 reading with. Yellowface is a book that explores the publishing industry and its intricacies. I’m not sure how realistic it is, but this definitely seems to be a book written by someone who has, perhaps, had to grapple with some of the dilemmas posed here.

Our main character, Juniper Song Hayward, has always wanted to be a writer. She has been published, but has had nothing like the success of her friend Athena Liu. There seems to be some professional jealousy on Juniper’s side but because Athena dies early on, we never really get to see anyone else’s view.

When Athena suffers her freak accident, Juniper is with her. She tries to save her, to no avail, but she also leaves Athena’s apartment with a first draft of a manuscript for her latest novel. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Juniper uses the draft and rewrites elements of it, passing it off as her own. It seems she’ll get away with it…at least at first.

The publication of Juniper’s latest novel causes problems. Rumours of plagiarism follow her, but more damning is the fact that a white woman has written about something she has no experience of.

Once we enter into the territory of authorship and narrative voice, I honestly found myself feeling as if everyone else was in on a joke that I hadn’t quite understood. The narrative became acutely aware of how it would be perceived and I was never sure what was the writer’s voice/commentary on the issues and what was the view of the character. By the end it felt as if the plot was tying itself in knots as it tried to set up something far cleverer than was needed for the occasion.

From the reviews of Kuang’s other novels I understand this is something of a departure for her. In some ways that’s good because this didn’t quite hit the mark for me, and I had been really looking forward to reading Babel. I might opt for something in between, though I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.