Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Publisher: Ink Road Books
Publication Date: April 5th 2018
Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟
Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.
Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warning for emotional and sexual abuse, suicide attempt and ableism.
“THERE’S AN ENTIRE OCEAN OUT THERE, KIKO – SWIM IN IT.”
Starfish is a gorgeously written and relatable depiction of social anxiety, interlaced with elaborate metaphors and visual descriptions of art.
From the very beginning, you get the impression that Kiko’s home life is highly toxic. Her parents are divorced, her mom is emotionally abusive, she doesn’t know much about her brothers and she’s triggered by the sight and mention of Uncle Max. I really enjoyed reading about these non-typical family dynamics, and Kiko’s relationship with her mother was written incredibly well to the point where you literally feel the frustration Kiko has towards her.
Kiko is mixed-race but largely out of touch with her Japanese roots, and she’s constantly subjected to abuse from her white mother who belittles Kiko’s ‘Asian’ appearance through her projection of Western beauty standards. Kiko’s conflict of identity was incredibly moving. Not only does she learn more about her Japanese heritage as the novel progresses but she also begins to embrace it.
Although I could not relate to Kiko’s experiences as a biracial teen, her struggle with social anxiety was something I felt on a deeply personal level. Even though the first person narrative allows us to understand and emphasise with Kiko, I loved the way her thoughts were often broken down into ‘what I wanted to say’ vs ‘what I actually said,’ adding an extra layer to her complex characterisation.
I also loved how the novel was hugely focused around Kiko’s art. The romance aspect was heart-warming, and Kiko’s anxiety isn’t ‘cured’ through her relationship with Jamie, but it was her passion for art and the visual descriptions of her sketches that really captured my attention and imagination. Each chapter ends with a brief account of Kiko’s latest drawing which almost acts like a prompt for the reader. Before I started writing, all of my creative energy was dedicated to art so I really wanted to stop reading after each chapter in order to paint those beautiful descriptions onto paper.
This all being said, I did have some issues with the book. At times, it felt incredibly unrealistic; with Kiko’s mom stressing how she can’t move out of the family home because she isn’t yet an adult, and then Kiko dropping everything to drive across the states to California like it’s no big deal. I know she just wanted to get away and her mom doesn’t really care anyway but shouldn’t this be ringing alarm bells?
The book also uses a lot of ableist language. Despite its accurate portrayal of social anxiety, it fails to pay the same respect to other mental illnesses which I found incredibly problematic. There aren’t a lot of reviews that acknowledge this issue, and I know the author has since addressed and removed some of the language, but it’s difficult to write my review or rate this book without taking this aspect into account.
Overall, this book was okay. It didn’t really live up to my expectations, and it has some issues with ableism, but I did enjoy the depiction of social anxiety, Kiko’s overall character arc and the way art was incorporated so vividly onto the page.