AUTHOR: Akemi Dawn Bowman
RELEASED: September 2017; Simon Pulse
GENRE: YA Contemporary
KEY INFO: #ownvoice, coming of age, healing, family, romance, artistry
REPRESENTATION: bi-racial, female MC, anxiety, survivor
CONTENT WARNINGS: anxiety, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, parental racism, suicide attempt
How do I even begin to review Starfish? I feel like there simply aren’t the appropriate words in the English language to express how this book made me feel, or if there are I certainly don’t know them.
Starfish is one of those books that I wish that I could have read as a teenager but one that I am still so glad to have read as an adult. It deals with some incredibly difficult topics like abuse, racism and mental illness but at all times Akemi manages to speak about these issues sensitively and empathetically. Overall, Starfish is definitely a book about healing, identity, and belonging. Healing for the main character. Healing for Akemi. And healing for many readers. It’s about piecing yourself back together again after a long life of trauma, allowing yourself to begin to experience new things, and ultimately to start accepting and loving yourself for who you are.
Our main character, Kiko Himura, is a bi-racial young woman with a Japanese father and a white mother. Throughout Kiko’s entire life she has never felt beautiful, validated or loved and a large part of that is because of her horrible mother but is also constantly reinforced by other people. Her brothers never really speak to her, her father has a new family, boys are ashamed to find Kiko attractive because their ‘parents wouldn’t approve of Asian girls’, and even her friends drop micro-aggressions about how ‘exotic’ Kiko is. Kiko has never felt that she fits in and results in her developing chronic, debilitating anxiety which manifests in panic attacks, being unable to speak to new people, being terrified of conflict, and locking herself away in her room.
Kiko’s only escape is art. She draws, she paints and her lifelong dream is to go to Prism, a major art school in New York City. Not only is she desperate to become an artist but she’s desperate to escape her mother. So, when Kiko receives her rejection letter from Prism she feels like her entire world is caving in and she must go on a difficult journey of self-discovery.
I loved Kiko’s character. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when she frustrated me to hell but that’s because I saw so much of myself in her. I’m sure there are so many people who relate to Kiko on so many different levels and it’s wonderful to have such a diverse character who speaks to readers like that.
Kiko’s mother & Abuse
Throughout the book, my heart broke for Kiko everytime her mother subjects her to emotional abuse, gaslighting and racism. She constantly tells Kiko how attractive she would be if she was white, how she wishes she had given them “traditional” (aka white) names, and how she can’t stand Asian culture. She blames Kiko for the destruction of her marriage to Kiko’s father. She explodes her paranoia in Kiko’s face all the time by accusing Kiko of spreading hateful lies about her to everyone. And she failed to believe that Kiko was sexually abused by her uncle (her mother’s brother) as a child.
She once told me she wished she had given me and my brothers more “traditional” names because she was “kind of over the Japanese thing.” You know, because being Asian is a trend or something.
Any scene with Kiko’s mother was incredibly hard to read because I saw myself in those experiences so much that it hurt. Whilst I will never understand what it is like to experience racism, the emotional abuse and gaslighting that Kiko is subjected to was almost like a mirror image of my relationship with my mum growing up (and even somewhat to this day). I personally found those scenes the hardest to read, but I found bravery through Kiko. I watched as she gained confidence throughout the book, how she began to find her voice to speak up about what she’s experienced, and eventually when she is able to confront these issues head-on. Instances like this is exactly why Starfish is such a healing book for so many and I am so thankful to Akemi for being able to perfectly capture it on paper.
I don’t have to be white to be beautiful, just like I don’t have to be Asian to be beautiful. Because beauty doesn’t come in one mold.
There is a romance in Starfish but what I appreciated so much is that it isn’t the romance that “fixes” Kiko. I loved her romance with he who shall not be named because of spoilers. It made my heart full of joy and my stomach full of butterflies but I am glad that Kiko (and Akemi) made the decision for this boy to not be the one to fix all of Kiko’s problems. He is there to support her and he definitely plays an important part in her healing process, but Kiko doesn’t want to always be dependent on him. She wants to thrive on her own and learn to be independent. I have so much respect for that. I used to be a serial relationship person because I was scared of being alone, but having that time on my own to really grow as a person was indescribable. Starfish is a perfect demonstration, to me, of how to do a romance right!
Mental Health Representation
As I’ve already mentioned, I thought the representation of anxiety through Kiko was amazingly authentic. I’m sure I am not the only one who saw myself reflected back in the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety. One section that really stuck out for me was when Kiko is struggling during a particularly stressful social situation.
Normal people don’t need to prepare for social interactions. Normal people don’t panic at the sight of strangers. Normal people don’t want to cry because the plan they’ve processed in their head is suddenly not the plan that’s going to happen.
If I could get my friends to read one book that captures what anxiety is like for me it would be Starfish. The way that Akemi describes how social situations, conflict, and anxiety affects Kiko is just… perfect. There’s really no other word I can use! It’s also important to mention that there is also a depiction of a suicide attempt in the book – there are no graphic scenes and it is not seen through Kiko’s eyes. It is something that happens to another character in the book but it is worth mentioning. Kiko feels guilty in the book when this happens to someone close to her because she feels like she was so wrapped up in her own anxiety and trauma that she didn’t notice the pain they were in. This is something that I think other reviewers have, unintentionally, done as I haven’t seen many others mention suicide attempt in their reviews. It occurs much later in the book and is a very short scene but it does happen so be prepared for this if you haven’t read it before!
As I’m sure you can already tell, I’m completely in love with Starfish. It seems so sad to me that I almost didn’t pick it up as my first request on Netgalley (US) was rejected and I had put the book to the back of my mind. I am so, so thankful to Black & White Publishing for approving me on Netgalley (UK) for the UK release of Starfish. Starfish has made such a big impression on me that I didn’t even hesitate to rate it 5 stars. I think it will definitely become one of my favourite books and I literally cannot wait for Summer Blue Bird to be released later this year!