Yellowface is a novel about literary plagarism, diversity, and the cutthroat world of publishing, as a white woman steals the unfinished manuscript of her dead friend. Juniper ‘June’ Hayward is a struggling writer jealous of the success of her sometime friend Athena Liu, who she went to college with. Athena is the next big thing, with a Netflix deal and hype for whatever she writes next, but she’s very secretive. When June is there when Athena dies after showing her the manuscript of her next novel, June takes the book and makes it her own. But when she finds runaway success, she is plagued by people questioning if she should have written that story and if it is even her book in the first place.
From the summary, you immediately know this is going to be a book about literary drama, and as the book at points highlights, this will particularly appeal to the minority who do spend a lot of time on Twitter caring about said drama. The book is from June’s perspective, which is a clever way to give the reader a perspective that is often unlikeable, and Kuang builds up an almost parodic portrait of her, with a whole host of “red flags” that give the reader insight into June’s attitudes about things. This means that the book is really not for people who want a likeable voice or character in a novel, and the satirical tone makes it not really about real characters at all, but figures that can stand in for ideas and viewpoints.
The plot is as you’d expect: success, and then things get complicated and messy. There’s lots about both the realities of publishing (snide comments about book boxes and giveaways) and then about book Twitter drama and how a lot of this drama doesn’t have any proof (even if, like in the book, it is actually true). The ending was a little inconclusive and lacked a hard-hitting final image that would underline the satirical point, but I did like that it kept things messy.
The whole book feels full of reality, but also is painted as an exaggerated version of what it is attacking (presumably most authors called out for things haven’t actually stolen whole manuscripts off dead people), and I liked the outrageousness of it and how meta it felt, though it will be interesting to see if that works for people who aren’t interested in internet drama about books. I’ve seen reviews pointing out that it is too close to the author and real drama, but as I’ve not read any of Kuang’s other books or have seen this drama, I can’t comment on that. It’s always going to be a book that perhaps hits differently for people depending on whether you know much about book drama or not and if you know much about Kuang’s own online persona and other books, and that may bring different readings of it.
Yellowface takes the world of online book drama and turns it into a darkly comic satire that reflects a lot of reality. It will probably divide people, particularly as it is full of in-jokes and unlikeable characters, but it is a fun rollercoaster of a book.
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