I was definitely curious about this one because R.F. Kuang wrote is, and because she posted an intriguing tiktok about it. After seeing some great early reviews I just knew I had to read it as well. I was very lucky to receive an eARC through Netgalley and I’m excited to share my thoughts with you all. Even though I do think this one will be pretty hard to review. Let’s dive in!
What's the harm in a pseudonym? New York Times bestselling sensation Juniper Song is not who she says she is, she didn't write the book she claims she wrote, and she is most certainly not Asian American--in this chilling and hilariously cutting novel from R. F. Kuang in the vein of White Ivy and The Other Black Girl.
Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena's a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn't even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks.
So when June witnesses Athena's death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena's just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I.
So what if June edits Athena's novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song--complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn't this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That's what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree.
But June can't get away from Athena's shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June's (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.
With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface takes on questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation not only in the publishing industry but the persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history by Western white society. R. F. Kuang's novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
Published by The Borough Press on 25/05/2023
You can preorder Yellowface here (our very first affiliate link!)
This book is hard to describe, I don’t think you get an actual feel for the story through this synopsis but I will try to coney some of it in this review! We follow June Hayward, a not so successful author. She is ‘friends’ with Athena Liu, they studied at Yale together and published their debut in the same year. But Athena is actually very successful and beloved.
At the start of the story June is quite bitter about her life and her friendship with Athena. As she watches Athena die unexpectedly, she takes Athena’s newest manuscript home with her. June decides to edit the manuscript and sends it to her agent as her own original work.
The manuscript is about Chinese laborers ’employed’ by the British and French during World War I. While June edits the novel, you can already tell she is shifting some of the narration. June doesn’t think she is racist at all but there are a lot of micro aggressions in basically everything she does, thinks and says. It was so interesting being in her mind. And it also made me think, there were a lot of moments where she was clearly in the wrong, but I think as a white person, a lot of us have had similar moments unfortunately. We don’t like to think we have, but if we’re being brutally honest with ourselves we definitely have. A lot of that is learned so I’m determined to unlearn all of it. And I think being aware is the first step. So like I said, this story definitely made me think, it held up a mirror that I hope more readers will look into.
Both June and the publisher are committed to make the novel work, they publish the book under the name Juniper Song and keep showing their racism through (micro) actions. At some point there is a threat of people finding out that June didn’t write the story herself and we see how far she is willing to go to keep her success.
June is an unreliable narrator and not a great person. She isn’t a loud racist but shows the deep rooted racism through small things and I think that does speak loudly in the end. You won’t like her, or any of the other characters haha. To me that wasn’t a problem at all. This book was more about the story and the commentary than anything else.
I’ve seen this described at satire a lot, I wouldn’t really say this is satire to be honest. Usually, I find satire books hilarious, and while I really liked this book I wouldn’t say I laughed out loud a lot. I wanted to keep on reading and reading and was really hooked, but I can’t say this was funny. And that is okay! I don’t think that was the aim of the book and like I said, I still enjoyed reading it a lot.
If you take a look at the reviews on Goodreads for this one, you see ratings and reviews all over the spectrum. Some readers loved this while others couldn’t stand the writing style or the message. It’s so interesting seeing the different reactions and I think this is something everyone has to decide for themselves. All I can say is, I liked the book a lot and would highly recommend it! It isn’t my usual genre but I’m very happy I picked this one up!