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Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang - Review

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

I've heard so much about this book and have been tempted to buy it a bunch of times, but then I decided to put it on hold at the library. It took AGES to come through! It's also a book club choice for later in the year so I did wonder if I ought to save it until then but I really wanted to read it, and I also didn't want to miss my chance. I'm hoping to write enough of a review here that means I can remember the book in detail later in the year, but who knows if that will happen or not... Anyway, here we go. 

June Hayward is an author living in Washington DC. She went to Yale, studied Creative Writing, and has had her debut novel published. It was a thinly veiled look at siblinghood and June's relationship with her mother, and it sort of did okay. She's trying to work out what she wants to write next. She is friends with Athena Liu, who she went to college with, and who is a bright light in publishing circles currently. She has written a few brilliant novels about the Chinese diaspora. She is in demand and is just lauded all over. She and June are sort of friends - there's a lot of jealousy on June's part and Athena can be sort of disparaging and just sort of rude towards her. They're hanging out one night and they go back to Athena's apartment, and something happens and Athena ends up dying. June has seen a draft of a new novel that she has just finished next to her antique typewriter, and she ends up taking it. Stealing it. 

She is traumatised by Athena's death, for sure. She reads the novel, which isn't exactly a complete draft. It's about Chinese men who were sent to the front line in France during the first World War and Athena has left a lot of gaps but has outlined the whole thing and shown her research. June decides that she will 'polish' and refine the novel. She sells it amidst huge furore and it is a huge sensation when it hits the shelves. 

Some people are immediately suspicious, although they don't have specific proof that she has stolen it from Athena. But still, it's something like Athena would have written, and a lot of Chinese authors are (rightfully) annoyed that June (who is white) has taken this opportunity from a Chinese author. June begins to be 'cancelled' online. Then a Twitter purporting to be Athena's ghost lets out some information about June, and everything goes wrong. 

She is certain that no one actually has proof - and why shouldn't she have taken Athena's work? She made it better! Athena is dead... isn't she? But then June needs another idea, and there are more ideas in the work she stole... 

The book is a searing look at publishing and how it works, and at cancellation culture, which I liked. It also looks at who "should" be writing books and how Athena had been pushed into a corner too really, only "allowed" to write about Chinese people and their stories. Neither June nor Athena come off well. Neither does Athena's mum, who sort of could have done things that she refuses to do for reasons I'm not quite certain of. The book also looks at trolling and the impact it has on June. It is hard to not feel any sympathy for her even though she's incredibly self serving. There's also stuff about writing and how writers do steal everything and what the ethical lines are there. 

I do wish that we had learned what had happened to June's dad. It's obvious that he died quite shockingly when June and Rory were young, but it's never explained. I think it would have explained more about June and her relationship with her mother. 

I do also think that because June is looking back on the whole debacle later on, the book does a lot of 'telling' and not showing. She barely has any real time conversations with anyone, and she comes across a bit robotic. I did still find the book incredibly compelling and read it quickly, but this did annoy me.

In all I'm giving this four out of five because I did like it, and I do think it deserves quite a lot of its hype. I would recommend it!

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