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BOOK REVIEW

In R.F. Kuang’s ‘Yellowface,’ intellectual theft by a white writer unleashes hauntings of all kinds

illo for sunday books 5/21Cecilia Castelli for the Boston

R.F. Kuang’s “Yellowface” is a tense, visceral, unexpectedly hilarious, and wildly entertaining novel that works on multiple levels. At once an exploration of guilt, a celebration of writing, a look at cultural appropriation, diversity, and racism in publishing, a sharp deconstruction of social media’s impact on the writing world — especially on writers — and a bizarre ghost story, this narrative accomplishes a lot and offers something for everyone.

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu went to the same prestigious MFA program together and became friends. They were literary up-and-comers who, they thought, were destined to achieve all their writing dreams together. However, the dream only came true for Athena, whose career skyrocketed. Athena achieved everything a writer could ever want: a huge advance with a major publisher, critical acclaim, bestseller status, and throngs of adoring fans. June published a novel that didn’t sell with a small press and had to get a job as a tutor to pay the bills. The two writers still speak somewhat regularly and get together once a month. After one of their outings, the duo goes to Athena’s apartment to chat and eat something, but the night veers off course and Athena chokes on her food and dies.

On impulse, June takes Athena’s recently finished manuscript, which no one else has seen. The novel, an impeccably researched historical narrative that delves into the unacknowledged contributions made by Chinese laborers during World War I, would’ve been Athena’s next masterpiece, and June knows it. However, the draft needs work, and June soon finds herself deep in a rewrite that turns into a posthumous collaboration with Athena. When the book is ready, June feels like she’s done a lot for it, and since no one knows Athena wrote the first draft, she sends it to her agent as her own work. The novel sells for a big advance and June becomes the next literary sensation, but she’s haunted by Athena’s ghost — first metaphorically and then literally. When plagiarism accusations explode online, June, now writing as Juniper Song, watches as her career teeters on the edge of destruction.

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“Yellowface” operates on various levels and shifts tones brilliantly. The first third of the book is hilarious, with June’s actions inhabiting a space between something like literary slapstick and the silliness of a straight white woman complaining that writers of color get all the attention in contemporary publishing. The second part takes a dark turn and June — now Juniper — becomes the focus of a social media mob that’s asking for her head, calling her a racist, claiming justice for Athena, and doing everything they can to end Juniper’s career. Juniper fights the naysayers and denies any wrongdoing, but her secret becomes a heavy burden, and guilt prevents her from enjoying her success, especially after she thinks she sees Athena’s ghost at an event. Then someone using the Twitter handle @AthenaLiusGhost makes allegations that threaten to destroy everything June has built. The last third of the book is a horror story in which Athena’s ghost haunts Juniper both in real life and online, where Athena’s Instagram account becomes active again with the sole purpose of communicating with June and sharing creepy photos.

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The book is fun to read, but it also tackles many important, timely topics. Juniper rationalizes her actions and mostly blames publishing for what she did, because she has the talent but claims that no one cares about narratives from straight white people. She is deeply flawed — lying throughout the entire narrative, ignoring her own casual racism, and placing blame on everyone else — but she’s also the victim of vicious attacks. She’s memorable because she’s somewhat likable and yet awful; a thief and someone who loves writing deeply; a victim of herself but also someone who gets the worst that the internet — mainly the “Twitterati” — has to offer. Kuang deftly uses Juniper as a vehicle to explore topics like identity and cultural appropriation, but also to expose the dark side of social media and cancel culture.

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Gloomy narratives fail in the absence of empathy. If readers don’t feel for the characters, then nothing in the story matters that much. In “Yellowface,” Kuang has created a narrator who is dishonest and disgraceful and still manages to make readers feel for her. June is a liar and a thief who rose to stardom on the work of a dead author who had triumphed despite being from an underrepresented group. Then she does it again by copying the entire first page of an unfinished Athena project and coopting the project from there. She’s trapped under the weight of Athena’s shadow. But every death threat, insult, and invitation to kill herself shows just how much vitriol is out there. What for some is nothing more than the hot social media topic of the moment is often someone else’s entire life. Juniper is awful, but so is the world. Readers are caught in the middle … and it’s much more fun than it sounds.

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“Yellowface” is a change for Kuang, who became a household name and best-selling author writing fantasy. This narrative flirts with the supernatural, but it’s grounded in reality, and shows that Kuang can do whatever she wants and deliver superb work regardless of genre. At once a brilliant satire that mixes horror and humor; a nuanced exploration of race, heritage, identity, and diversity in publishing; and an honest look at the hell that is social media, this might just be Kuang’s best.

YELLOWFACE

By R.F. Kuang

William Morrow, 336 pages, $30

Gabino Iglesias is a book critic and the author of “The Devil Takes You Home.”