BOOK REVIEW: “Starfish” by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish is the unique story-telling of Kiko Himura, a seventeen-year-old girl with social anxiety disorder. Ridden with memories of sexual abuse, low self-esteem and guilt, she confides in art as a way to escape and portray the emotions she has trouble articulating verbally. Kiko believes she will be able to get away from her problems through Prism, the art school she’s been dreaming of attending since the beginning of her high school career. When she isn’t accepted, Kiko must devise a new plan to mend her life back together again — even if it means putting herself out there.

One of my favorite features of the novel was the design of the main antagonist: Kiko’s mother. Kiko’s mom is a narcissist who isn’t pleased with herself until everyone else is behind her. She targets her daughter as a way to get this gratification. Not only that, but she doesn’t believe that Kiko was sexually abused by her uncle, simply telling her that she either imagined it, dreamed it, or misunderstood something. This infuriated me. I’m impressed that Bowman was able to stir such strong emotions in her readers as it’s not that easy to do so. Kiko’s mother was a complex villain who could fool you into thinking that she was trying to change until she does something vile again. In some moments it was even heart-breaking to read as a mother endlessly tears her child apart piece by piece.

The rawness of Bowman’s writing was excellent when describing Kiko’s anxiety. She didn’t try to romanticize mental illness as mainstream media tends to do in this generation. Kiko’s disorder was told how it is: ugly and perpetual. The “WHAT I WANT TO SAY:” and “WHAT I ACTUALLY SAY:” parts in Kiko’s thoughts were clever and ridiculously accurate.

Identity was a reoccurring theme in this novel. Kiko is half Japanese which is something she was taught to hate about herself in the beginning. As a minority, I could relate to this so much. The media usually only advertises one type of beauty, which is what’s shoved into our brains and makes us believe that is the only definition of beauty. It makes us hate ourselves and wish we had some sort of switch to flip that could make us “pretty.” It makes us feel small. Society is starting to be more inclusive, but we still have a long way to go. I was glad Bowman could voice her opinion through my favourite character in the book, Hiroshi Matsumoto:

“Beauty isn’t a single thing. Beauty is dreaming – it’s different for everyone, and there are so many versions of it that you mostly have no control over how you see it.”

Kiko’s relationship with her two brothers, Shoji and Taro, may not seem significant at first but I was stunned at how much it actually was. The three of them are generally distant from each other, living like independent soldiers under the attack of their mother. As I previously mentioned, Kiko is targeted the most. Shoji has his confidence as a defense which leaves him generally untouched. Taro owns a loud sense of humor which allows him to not take things too seriously. Kiko has her dreams. They give her endurance. Sadly, none of the three are the whole package. This was a brilliant way to portray family and teamwork.

Jamie’s character had a significant role in Kiko’s journey. He was her best friend and her main source of support. He made her happy. Except, there is something very important to know about anxiety disorders. If someone like this were to solely depend on a single person, it can be extremely damaging to both people. There comes a point when a person cannot always be there for support. It’s similar to using a crutch. A crutch prevents you from having to use what is weak. After a time, the crutch will also become weak and break. Not only this, but the other person will be no stronger than when they first started using the crutch. Kiko had to learn this lesson the hard way in order to grow. I appreciated that Bowman was truthful about the dangers of these types of relationships.

I would recommend this book to any young person with a dream. Although it will probably tear your heart out, there are messages within the novel that may change your way of thinking. If there’s one thing I took away from reading this, it’s that accepting yourself, everything about yourself, is the first step to self-improvement and reaching your dreams. You need to forgive yourself and start living with more meaning than to just beat yourself up over your mistakes. It won’t be an easy process, but it’s possible. It saddens me that there are teenagers younger than me who are much too hard on themselves. Self-discipline and constantly chastising yourself are two different things. There is so much growth and maturity in learning the difference between them. I would definitely read Starfish again as well as her new novel that will be released September 11, 2018.