Yellowface by R.F. Kuang – Book review

I have heard a lot of good things about Yellowface so was excited to give it a read. I actually had Covid at the time of reading, all I could do was lay in bed but Yellowface is the perfect illness distraction as it kept me totally engrossed. It’s a psychological thriller that asks: when it comes to telling stories, does the truth really matter?

Opening sentence: The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.

What is cultural appropriation?

The title of this book, Yellowface, is a term that refers to, according to the Cambridge dictionary, ‘the practice of white actors changing their appearance with make-up in order to play East Asian characters in films, plays etc’.

It is relevant as our lead character, author June Hayward (who later becomes become Juniper Song – which is actually her real first and middle names, minus her last, Hayward) becomes a world-wide smash for her novel that centres around the struggle of Chinese soldiers during the war. June, however, is Caucasian, not Chinese in origin. She gets questioned on if she is the right person to tell this story.

Athena never personally experienced suffering. She just got rich from it.

What makes the waters even murkier is the fact that June’s friend, fellow author Athena Liu, is of Chinese descent and June was there the night she died… June gets questioned again, this time on the similarities between her new book and Athena’s back-catalogue. She, in turn, questions Athena’s authenticity and how she created her own stories.

Tell any story you want?

June is a great character, a highly readable unreliable narrator as she’s both self-aware and unaware. She absolutely blends facts to suit her own agenda but her point is – who doesn’t? She takes opportunities (as she sees them) and is obsessed with making a mark on the world, on being remembered – she is a storyteller and will craft her own life. For her, the truth is inconsequential really, it’s all about a great story. Why shouldn’t you be able to tell the version of your life you want to tell?

Despite June’s dedication to her self-preservation, she finds herself in more than a few moments where the truth is about to come crashing down on her. How often she can squirm out of these moments is what makes this book so addictive.

The truth is fluid. There is always another way to spin the story, another wrench to throw into the narrative.

Yellowface is a highly enjoyable satirical take on cultural appropriation, cancel culture, the publishing industry and the venom of social media.

It’s such a fresh and clever read that throws up a lot of ideas and questions, all within a tight, thriller plotline. It kept the pace up right through to the end and what an ending – so funny and of course, the only place June could have taken it. Sorry to finish this review on such an ambiguous note – you’ll just have to read Yellowface and see if you agree!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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