Sometimes the universe hands you a gift. Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman fell into my lap purely by luck. I always have a large number of books on hold but when Starfish arrived in my work mailbox, I didn’t remember requesting it. It turns out I put the wrong book on hold – I meant to request a different book with a similar title. I was going to send it back but something prompted me to open it and start reading. And I read and I read and I didn’t stop reading until the book was finished.
At the start of the story Kiko wins an honourable mention at an art show. Her work was very accomplished but she’s overwhelmed with a sense of failure. Her mother is highly critical on the best of days, let alone if she doesn’t win first-place. Kiko craves her mother’s approval but Kiko’s mother is incapable of giving it. Instead she enjoys watching her daughter jump through hoops trying to earn her affection. The relationship between mother and daughter is probably the most difficult thing to read in the book, but there was something very real about their toxic dynamic and I think readers will connect with it. Not all families are rainbows and sunshine and this type of abuse is not commonly written about.
Kiko Himura is a character you connect with right from the start. She is just so human; it’s hard not to like her. She is a teenage girl looking for love and acceptance but yet doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. She’s half-Asian but doesn’t know anything about her Japanese heritage. She perceives herself as a worn out piece of furniture that doesn’t match with anything else. She’s painfully anxious. Social settings are always awkward for her. When she speaks, her words tumble out in a tangled mess. Her art is her only refuge. It is the only time she is completely at ease with herself.
The theme of self-worth is woven throughout the story and is often reflected in Kiko’s art. I’m not an artistic person myself, but my favourite part of each chapter was Kiko’s art. Her work was often raw and heartbreaking but reflected her growth as a character. At the start of the story she paints a girl “…flying along a border where darkness becomes light, unsure of where she’s supposed to be”. At the end of the story she draws a skeleton putting itself back together again.
Kiko’s character journey is a satisfying one. She doesn’t suddenly undo all the damage she’s endured but she does take the first steps toward living without the need for her mother’s approval. Author Akemi Dawn Bowman said she wrote the book because it was the story she needed to have when she was young. Indeed, many readers will be able to see themselves in Kiko and draw strength from her journey.
The universe really did send me a gift with Starfish. It’s an extraordinary character-driven story that reminds us that we cannot exist to please others. Love must come from within.
— Lesley L.