Book Review: “Yellowface” by R.F. Kuang

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors and writers involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Though this project is a book, it’s important to recognize that all art is impacted in the fight for a better industry. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind WGA and SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions. 

Yellowface is a poignant and hilarious commentary on the modern publishing industry and the online literary community. With a cast of delightfully unlikable characters, this story manages to maintain its heart from beginning to end. Readers can expect Kuang’s typical heartfelt, biting commentary on the state of our world. Placing this commentary in a contemporary fictitious setting allows Kuang to further deepen her already superior analytical and storytelling skills. 

It makes sense to begin with how deftly Kuang paints a picture of a stunningly horrific protagonist. Every moment following June Hayward is a unique torture that is nonetheless compelling. Each step in her journey is a chaotic reflection of the worst impulses of writers everywhere. Her delusions of grandeur are uncomfortably authentic. Her character is also an example of how ambition without humility or self-reflection leads down a dangerous path. 

Relatedly, Athena is almost equally unlikable. The fact that this character is meant to be a kind of mirror to Kuang herself shows just how self-reflective she is about her own experience. It’s clear from this character that Kuang sees a vision for her own future and sees her own worst impulses brought to life with bad choices. The fact that this character illustrates Kuang’s level of self-awareness speaks well of her character. 

The story also effectively captures the absolute cesspool that is online discourse. What makes these storylines so effective is that they capture the fact that most people just want to post for a reaction rather than to engage in an actual thoughtful discussion. Anyone who has ever even scratched the surface of this underbelly of the internet knows that the rage machine is never actually concerned about seeing justice done. Watching the impact that this has on a fictional character is a reminder of how this vitriol impacts real people and real relationships.

Finally, the story also captures so brilliantly the realities of adult female friendships. This is an opportunity to reflect on how easily these relationships can become derailed by jealousy and a sense of entitlement. While it’s unfortunate that June and Athena never got a chance to be completely honest with one another, their story is reflective of how toxic these types of relationships can become without self-reflection and honesty. 

At its core, Yellowface is satire at its finest. This entire story is a brilliant case of “if the shoe fits, wear it”. It’s easy to see how this applies to many people in real life, even if they may not want it to be so. The novel acts as a mirror for anyone who considers themselves a part of the industry. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on what the purpose of authorship and art is in our society. With a side of dark humour, this is a journey worth taking. 

Yellowface is available now. 

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