Cover image for Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780063250833

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Athena had a magpie’s eye for suffering. This skill united all her best-received works. She could see through the grime and sludge of facts and details to the part of the story that bled. She collected true narratives like seashells, polished them off, and presented them, sharp and gleaming, to horrified and entranced readers.”

Writers June Hayward and Athena Liu have a casual friendship that dates back to college but is made up more of convenience than true affinity. While Athena has shot to popular fame and critical acclaim, June’s debut novel tanked, and she has no idea what to write next. That is, until Athena chokes to death right in front of her after a drunken night on the town to celebrate a film deal, and June steals the first draft of Athena’s new manuscript, a historical fiction novel about the Chinese Labour Corps in World War I. June rewrites Athena’s draft and publishes it under the deceptive new pen name Juniper Song. The Last Front wins June all the publishing accolades she ever dreamed of, but with fame comes haters, including one anonymous online troll who seems to know the truth about what June has done.

June is the definition of an unreliable, unlikeable narrator. She is a master of self-justification, and every time she gets her way it only reinforces her notion that her actions are acceptable, even righteous. She capitalizes on the death of her friend and uses Athena’s reputation as a shield against accusations of cultural appropriation, as well as to cover up her plagiarism. While we don’t see the theft itself on page, we know one thing about June Hayward: in the moments after her friend choked to death in front of her, she still had the presence of mind to go into Athena’s office and take her manuscript.

Yellowface can be an at times maddening read filled with cringeworthy moments of nice white liberal racism taken to the satirical extreme, which June is constantly explaining away or ignoring. While it does not have the overt violence of The Poppy War or even Babel, the cuts come small and fast and sharp. June believes that Athena’s work, while good, isn’t any better than hers, but that the diversity card rocketed Athena to fame while June’s debut novel sank. Yet if that were the case, why would The Last Front by Juniper Song be so successful? Riding the wave of Athena’s stolen success, this is not a question June seems to have the ability to contemplate. She is simply living the life to which she felt she was always entitled; it belongs rightfully to her. She has no capacity to question that entitlement.

Kuang does not sugar coat the dark parts of the publishing industry, but rather showcases them warped even darker through the bitter lens of June’s attempts to understand why her own work hasn’t found its audience. The visceral struggle of writing under the pressure of outside expectations is also on display, creating a nauseating tension between the discomfort of reading about June’s writer’s block in the aftermath of The Last Front, and the vengeful desire to see her fail and be exposed for the thief that she is. And June is not the only victim of the online discourse that The Last Front sparks. Soon Athena’s legacy is being tarnished as well, and an assistant at June’s publisher loses her job over her criticisms of The Last Front.

The novel showcases a false, toxic friendship poisoned in the seed by jealousy and a competitive mindset. Early in the novel, June expresses her puzzlement at the fact that Athena keeps reaching out to her even though June has no clout, popularity, or connections to offer her in return and make their friendship worth Athena’s while. The fact that June thinks of relationships this way is telling, and it is notable that throughout the story, she has no other real friends, confidants, or romantic connections beyond the barest possible hint of sexual tension between June and Athena in a drunken moment where June hopes Athena might kiss her. Isolated, the only explanation June can come up with is that Athena was keeping her around as a lowly punching bag, a companion who she never has to fear will outstrip her. June, on the other hand, cannot even mentor a young writer without worrying that the girl will one day surpass her.

Around the edges, however, we do get hints of Athena’s humanity, and that she was not the publishing industry’s perfect golden girl. Beyond June’s bitter jealousy and irrational dislike, the question of who gets to write what belongs not just to Juniper Song and The Last Front, but to Athena’s own writing about Korean war veterans, rape survivors, and other experiences that did not belong to her but which she mined in her work. In death, Athena is the victim of theft, but in life it seems she may have hurt others in the single-minded pursuit of her craft, even at the expense of her own relationships. In the wake of her death, no friend, family member, or colleague seems to have really known what Athena was working on, a fact that June exploits. In this lies the deeper hint that their greatest commonality was not being writers, but their mutual loneliness.

Towards the end of the book, with no idea what to write next, June decides to try to take her own scandal and fictionalize it, further complicating the public narrative. But as she writes, she finds herself unable to draft a satisfying conclusion to the tale. “I’ve written myself into a corner,” she laments. “The first two thirds of the book were a breeze to compose, but what do I do with the ending? Where do I leave my protagonist, now that there’s a hungry ghost in the mix, and no clear resolution?” Funnily enough, this is a problem that Yellowface also encounters. Frustrating as the ending is, it raises the question: would a woman like June Hayward ever really face justice? Or would scandal only feed her parasitic career?

Also by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War

The Dragon Republic

The Burning God


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