In “Yellowface,” R.F. Kuang satirizes the publishing industry with a tale of a struggling writer who passes off her recently deceased friend's book as her own. Credit…Marella Moon Albanese When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission. YELLOWFACE , by R.F. Kuang An unreliable narrator is an invitation to a shell game. Watch closely, the book says, and if you're very attentive, you'll find the ugly truth hidden beneath layers of pleasant obfuscation and textual sleight of hand. But the unreliable narrator of R.F. Kuang's “Yellowface” takes a different approach: Instead of hiding the facts, she puts her sordid truth under a glass dome and shines a spotlight over it. June Hayward is a white woman in her late 20s, attempting to revive a writing career that stalled at the starting line after her debut novel flopped. Meanwhile, her friend Athena Liu — beautiful, charismatic, Asian American — “has everything: a multibook deal straight out of college at a major publishing house, an M.F.A. from the one writing workshop everyone's heard of, a résumé of prestigious artist residencies, and a history of awards nominations.” Kuang's novel opens with these two writers toasting to Athena's exciting new TV deal while June wonders why they're friends. She fantasizes about being Athena, feeling “a bizarre urge to stick my fingers in her berry-red-painted mouth and rip her face apart, to neatly peel her skin off her body like an orange and zip it up over myself.” She gets precisely that chance. As they celebrate at Athena's apartment, Athena dies in a freak accident — and in the confusing aftermath, June steals an unpublished manuscript off her desk. The manuscript in question is a war epic, “about the unsung contributions and experience of the Chinese Labour Corps, the 140,000 Chinese workers who were recruited by the British Army and sent to the Allied Front during World War I.” Deciding to pass the novel off as her own, June rewrites sections as if she's tailoring a dress to fit her: She makes Athena's white characters more sympathetic, […]
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