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  • Writer's pictureLynne McConway

Book review: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

A satirical take on racism, diversity and cultural appropriation in publishing

An image of the cover of Yellowface

June and Athena are old college mates and novelists. June is struggling with her career and languishing in the doldrums. Athena, on the other hand, is the opposite: she's a literary darling feted with plaudits and acclaim. At the end of the first chapter, Athena is involved in a freak accident and dies. June is distraught but still manages to take the only copy of Athena's hotly-anticipated, newly drafted novel home with her.

June, after much self-justification, reworks the novel which centres on the experience of Chinese soldiers and their treatment by the French during World War 1. Unsurprisingly, it's a huge hit. Bestseller status, award nominations and six-figure income all come June's way. She's changed her name to the racially ambiguous Juniper Song and now faces a backlash, mainly online, where she is asked if this story, as a white woman, is hers to tell.

I really enjoyed the pacing of the first third of the book. Kuang is obviously a great writer, particularly when dealing with an unlikeable, unreliable narrator like June. When the book turned to the fallout on social media, I started to lose some enthusiasm. There are pages and pages dedicated to who said what to whom and when - all of which I think could have been edited without losing the well-made point about internet pile-ons. I felt the same about the detailed descriptions of the publishing industry - as a newbie writer, I found it interesting but wonder if a general reader would be as interested.

The novel deals with many interesting and current issues including racism, white privilege, authorial voice and the toxic culture of the publishing world. I just didn't feel that these were really dealt with in any real depth, rather they were skimmed over. I also couldn't fathom why June and Athena were friends in the first place, never mind still in touch. The appearance of an ex-boyfriend fizzled to nothing exciting and the ending...really?

I don't want to end on a negative though as I'm aware that a lot of people seem to love Yellowface. It is paced well and the tone of voice for the narrator, that of self-pity and self-justification, was written well. Definitely one to read but perhaps not at the top of your t-be-read list.


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