Saturday 30 January 2016

Native Speaker

(January 2016)

Kind of a novelty read this, in that I’ve just wrapped up almost a year’s worth of study on the Native Speaker Ideal and this seemed like an appropriate way to top things off. Also a great (by which I mean flimsy as all hell) excuse to start collecting these Penguin Drop Caps editions.
I only heard of Lee last year, with the release of On Such a Full Sea gathering a bit of attention in SF circles. Aside from that though, I came to this pretty much blind. It’s clearly a great book, but it also cut very close to the bone for me, and was a frankly terrifying experience in places. I shall explain.

Henry Park is a second-generation Korean-American, and this is a diaspora novel exploring notions of identity, community, and belonging in the way diaspora novels are wont to do. The key twist here is that Henry is also a, what? Private detective? Free-lance spy? It’s never really nailed down, but he basically works as a mole, getting close to his marks and compiling reports on the aspects of their lives they would rather were kept private. What happens to that information afterwards is anyone’s guess. A large part of his job, then, is creating identities for himself in order to pass within the circle of his targets, while maintaining a certain distance from them for the sake of safety as much as anything else. Thematic unity ahoy.

Henry’s mark this time is a Korean-American councilman looking to run for mayor of New York, and this tale of infiltration and acceptance runs in parallel with flashbacks to Henry’s own childhood as the son of immigrants, and his relationship with his father especially. If that’s weren’t a situation ripe enough with symbolism Lee also throws into the mix Henry’s ongoing attempt to reconcile with his (white, American) wife after their relationship fell apart following the death of their young son. (That’d be the ‘close to the bone’ bit right there. The dying kids bit, not the rocky relationship, fortunately.) The prose is wonderfully precise and the literary explorations of theme and character are all you would or could expect, but perhaps the most surprising thing is how well it works as a spy story. In the later stages there’s genuine tension about Henry’s ability to serve two masters, as all spooks must, and how his assignment will pan out. It also features the great immigrant city of New York almost as a character in its own right, which is a very nice segue into the next month of reading I’ve got lined up. All-in-all, a pleasingly serendipitous experience.

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