Monday, April 05, 2010


Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 1995, 324 pp

This novel is amazing! I don't know how I could have missed it for almost 15 years. The author is Korean born, raised and educated in the United States (Yale, MFA from University of Oregon, now teaches at Princeton.) 

Henry Park, the main character, was raised in New York City by Korean immigrants, so as is usual in first novels, there is some autobiographical influence here. Henry's father, who had been an electrical engineer in Korea, built up a successful chain of small grocery stores in the city and eventually moved his family to the suburbs. When the story opens, Henry is working as a spy for a private espionage company and is married to a white American woman. They have lost a child, their marriage is crumbling and Henry has recently survived a disastrous assignment at his company. In other words, his carefully created life is in shambles. Henry is a very careful man in most respects though he has a penchant for danger.

This is not ordinary story about the strain of a lost child on a marriage however. Nor is it a second generation immigrant tale nor a spy thriller, though it is all of those things. It is the weaving of these three narrative threads, as well as Lee's corruscating style that places the novel way above the norm. Aside from probably being ahead of his time, the novel could have won a Pulitzer Prize, because it is a quintessential American story for the 21st century in the way that Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is.

I was infatuated on every page, wanting to read as fast as I could but lingering to savor sentences. Henry Park has a plethora of issues which center in an inability to express his inner feelings in spoken language, an understandable weakness for a person raised between two languages and two almost opposing cultures. His wife Lelia, another stunningly created character, is a speech therapist who is defeated by her own husband's speaking deficiencies.

Presumably Chang-rae Lee is intimately familiar with his protagonist's troubles. Happily for us readers, he has overcome them, at least as a writer. Rarely does a novel so fully insert me into  the lives of its characters. Every time I open a new book, I hope for this type of reading experience and in Native Speaker I got it.

(Native Speaker is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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