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‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F Kuang

This 2023 bestseller has been in my ‘to read’ pile for so long that Wendy ended up beating me to it. Interestingly, we had similar thoughts about it.

The plot concerns a young writer whose more successful friend dies in an accident. The writer steals an early draft of a novel from her deceased friend, works on it extensively, and publishes it to rave reviews.

This plot is not a million miles away from that of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which I read and disliked a few years ago. Kuang’s handling of the subject is much better: she weaves in interesting questions about cultural appropriation alongside the more obvious issues of ownership of ideas and the boundaries of authorship. Kuang’s writing is also much more fun, bringing a satirical view of the culture wars with a wry humour, as opposed to The Plot’s ever-building air of tension.

In her acknowledgments, Kuang says that ‘Yellowface is, in large part, a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry.’ I agree with that perspective, and I also think that it represents the better part of the book.

However, Wendy and I both found the final section of this book jarring. There was a quite sudden change in the tone of the book, the style of writing, and the characterisation of the protagonist. It was quite peculiar, and rather lessened the impact of the book for both of us. We debated whether this was intentional: was this a comment on what it’s like to read a book which is ‘finished off’ by another author? Neither of us could quite believe that to be true.

This would have been a better book if the final section had stripped away the satire and doubled-down on the moral complexity of its central questions. It’s a book that deserved an ambiguous ending, but had some dodgy black-and-white thriller content bolted onto the end instead. It was a shame… but I still think the book’s worth reading for the first two-thirds. And I liked this quotation:

Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much. To stop writing would kill me.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

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