I don’t love reading books that have all the buzz. The ones on all of the must read most anticipated best of lists. That get picked for all of the book clubs. I’m not inherently opposed to popularity. If anything, I find myself too swayed by all of the opinions. I’m overcritical or underwhelmed usually. It helps if I let some time pass, so it doesn’t feel so in my face. Library hold lists make this easier.
My hold for Yellowface came in and I almost let it pass. I’d been avoiding the press about it, skipping over the substack posts from Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, where it was the book club pick. I still felt like I was seeing pieces about it everywhere, gushing reviews and recommendations. It all still felt a bit much. But then I did that thing where I said “read the first page and if it doesn’t grab you, let it go until later” and then two hours passed and I was enthralled.
Now, I knew Kuang was a talented writer going in. I read the first two Poppy War novels, but they were so bleak and I couldn’t finish the series. (Though it may have had more to do with trying to power through during the shutdown days when everything was pretty bleak.) I’ve started Babel, but set it aside for timing reasons. Which is to say the writing was always impressive and compelling, but sometimes the stories weren’t the best fit for my mental state.
I have no idea why this creeping horror story of a white woman stealing her dead Asian friend’s work and passing it off as her own worked for me right now. But my goodness it did. Kuang manages the tension in this so perfectly, I didn’t want to put it down. I needed to know what was going to happen next. It was thrilling.
But there’s also more than a heist, a ghost, a con job and a coverup. There’s social, racial and political commentary, there’s stunning observations and gorgeous sentences and insider publishing industry and insight into the writer’s mind. I want to immediately reread it. I want to discuss it with others. I won’t say that everything in this is brand new, these are issues that have been brought up over and over. But Kuang shines such a harsh light, it is hard to pretend there are grey areas. And manages to do it with a delicate touch, so artfully arranged, so perfectly presented there are no arguments left. Just truth. In a book all about lies.