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‘Yellowface’ book review: Slow burn but gripping

‘Yellowface’ book review: Slow burn but gripping

Rebecca F. Kuang, better known as R.F. Kuang, is the author of the hugely popular ‘The Poppy War’ trilogy. The first book ‘The Poppy War’ was published in 2018. The subsequent novels in the series, ‘The Dragon Republic’ and ‘The Burning God’, were published in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Kuang released a standalone novel ‘Babel’ or the Necessity of Violence in 2022. ‘Yellowface’ came out in 2023.

The Poppy War series was a bestseller. Some of the bookstores I frequent had to restock it multiple times as there was a big demand for it. Booksellers said those who didn’t read a lot too came searching for it. Many people bought all three books in one go. The craze had caught on. Babel debuted at the first spot on The New York Times Best Seller list, and won Blackwell’s Books of the Year for Fiction in 2022 and the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

I haven’t read The Poppy War but I did read Babel. It’s a thick book but I loved it. In comparison, Yellowface is slimmer. But the writing is as gorgeous and the story is gripping, albeit slow at times. I began reading Yellowface at the end of December 2023 and finished it on the first of January 2024. I like to say I ended my reading year on a good note and had a great start to another one.

June Hayward isn’t having much luck as a writer. Her debut book received a lukewarm response. She struggles to pay rent as well as come up with an idea that will make a good story. Her college friend, Athena Liu, on the other hand, has skyrocketed her way to stardom. At just 27, she has three bestselling books, a Netflix deal, and an awards nomination list that is ‘longer than a grocery list’. June is jealous, and perhaps a bit resentful tool. Why should Athena have so much while she has so little?

Then Athena dies and June takes her recently completed first draft of her newest manuscript. It’s the story of Chinese laborers in World War I. It’s the only copy that exists. Athena writes on a manual typewriter and she doesn’t share her work with anyone. June polishes the draft and submits it to her agent as her own work. It gets published and June suddenly has everything Athena ever did. But the secret soon comes out as all secrets do, and June finds herself doing things she wouldn’t normally do to hold on to her newfound fame.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the discussion on stories and who gets to tell which kind of stories. Do you have to come from a certain community to be able to write about their hardships? Does privilege mean you can’t be empathetic? June is an unreliable character and that keeps you on your toes while reading the book because you don’t know if you should trust what she’s saying. But Kuang is a convincing writer. She makes you feel for her characters even though they are in the wrong. I loved Yellowface and would highly recommend it. It’s enjoyable. The ending falls a little flat but makes up a little by leaving a lot of room for imagination.


Rebecca F Kuang

Published: 2023

Publisher: The Borough Press

Pages: 323, Paperback