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Yellowface is unlike any of R.F. Kuang’s previous novels and it’s important for not only established fans to note this, but also new readers of R.F. Kuang’s to acknowledge.
Where R.F. Kuang’s previous books are mainly known for their fantasy elements and intensity, Yellowface is a breath of contemporary air. With an incredibly easy writing style and a clear satirical take on modern conversations within the publishing world, privilege, and being a writer.
This book takes us on a tour through the publishing world and points out every single one of its problems. All of the deeming problematic qualities within not just the publishing world, but communities of writers, editors, readers, publishers, etc. designed to be read in one sitting and received like housewives talking at the end of the street about neighborhood drama.
With that being said, let’s jump right in.
Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu shared many glaring similarities on the surface. Both rising stars who graduated the same year at Yale and debuted the same year in publishing. Upon closer inspection, Athena is a cross-genre literary darling and June hasn’t even received a paperback release. Convinced it is because nobody wants stories about basic white girls.
So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she decides to steal 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.
What happens next is a spiral, June claims Athena’s work as her own. June’s publisher rebrands her as Juniper Song, with a completely brand new ambiguous ethnic, author photo. June feels that the story being told, is more important than who might get to tell it.
Despite her brand new fame and ethnicity, June can’t escape Athena’s shadow, especially as evidence begins to pop up proving that June’s success and work, are stolen. June will have to discover just how far she will go to keep what she thinks is hers.
With a completely immersive first-person POV, Yellowface questions diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation. And not just within the publishing world, but also persistent erasure of Asian-American voices and history in Western white society.
Thoughts on the Plot
One thing I think most readers can agree on when it comes to Yellowface is just how meta the book is. So many references fill the pages of the novel, references to current pop culture and politics.
The book is also set heavily within the publishing world and thus, might not appeal to everyone. But can be looked past with other elements within the novel.
It also at times felt a bit one-sided. R.F. Kuang is showing us a view of the publishing world that is a bit biased, as she herself is an Asian-American woman within the publishing industry.
One thing I do find interesting is that this book is labeled as dark satire, but sometimes I missed the “dark” aspects of the satire. Unless the “dark” is considered June’s self-deprecating thoughts. Which made her a very exhausting character’s head to be in.
The book starts out a little slow but kicks up pretty quickly. Before dropping back down into a slower telling of events. Things get pretty crazy, pretty quickly. Again, to me, it was simply too much of June’s self-deprecating thoughts that just had me sighing in boredom at some points throughout the story.
One thing that did interest me was the commentary on the book community. As someone who tends to feel on the outskirts of the book community, the insight into how other readers interact with each other was interesting. Though this insight could be taken differently as it is much more individual than looking into the publishing world.
Thoughts on the Characters
There weren’t really any characters I wanted to root for in this book. June is a plagiarizing, self-loathing, mean girl and Athena is assumed to be a spoiled brat who has never truly worked for anything in her life, as told through June’s POV.
And perhaps she is, but we never get to really know the real Athena, the way we get to know the real June.
June and Athena are friends in the loosest sense of the word. Their friendship is toxic and held together purely by both June and Athena’s need for attention and affection.
Race is also a big theme within this book. There is a lot of commentary and dialogue and interest in June being white and Athena being Asian. This opens the door for other writers and editors within the book, and readers, to wonder what authority June could possibly have in writing in depth about Chinese history.
If we keep in mind, even with research, June is writing a story that is stolen, about people who are closer to Athena than June.
Even though it is clear that Athena dies towards the beginning of the book, Athena is still very much a main character. Both June and Athena are snobby, entitled, privileged, and frustratingly flawed characters in their own ways. While I do wonder if Athena’s character could be considered “morally grey”, June’s character cannot.
I listened to the audiobook version of this book, which made it a lot easier for my mind to drift off at times. Even if I had read the book as an eBook or physical book, I still do not think it would change my rating.
June at times is nothing but insufferable. There was more than one occasion when I wanted to DNF the book just because I couldn’t stand being in her head anymore.
However, this story is definitely thought-provoking and will make you think and question. I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a re-read however. That being said,
I rate this book 3.75 out of 5 stars.
Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?