I loved A Gesture Life, which I read a few years ago. Native Speaker is Chang-rae Lee’s debut novel. Written in 1996, the themes of assimilation and being true to your culture are still relevant today. I find Lee’s writing to be quiet and introspective, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The book did drag for me in places, but it was still a good reading experience overall.
The novel is about Henry Park. He was born in America to Korean parents. He tries to eschew traditional Korean ways but also struggles to understand his parents. Most of all, he desires to be a “native speaker.” His father owns a grocery store and proudly experiences the American dream of prosperity through hard work. Henry graduates college. He meets and marries an American woman. His stoicism, memory, and feelings of alienation make him both a success and a failure. He is a success at work, at least in the beginning. He is recruited to work for a vague spy agency. This goes well until he lets down his emotional guard and becomes close to the psychiatrist he is spying on. At the same time, he is emotionally detached from his wife and is failing in his marriage. He keeps much of himself hidden including his job as a spy. When their young son dies in an accident, the distance is exacerbated. The novel opens with Henry reading a list of his character flaws. The list is written by his wife. It includes mostly negatives, including “neo-American,” “stranger,” and “emotional alien.” She gives him the list when she leaves him. Having failed at work, he is given one chance to redeem himself. He infiltrates the campaign of an up and coming Korean-American politician. This does not go smoothly. Henry is also given a second chance with his wife and he has to make some decisions.
I really do enjoy Mr. Lee’s writing style. It has a lot of layers, just like the story itself. There is some mystery and political intrigue and corruption to move the plot along. For me the more enjoyable parts are when Henry grapples with finding his place in the world and reconciling two cultures. There is a nice contrast among Henry and John Kwang, the Korean-American politician, as well as Henry and his traditional Korean father. All three men have different approaches to assimilation and fail at varying degrees. If you are looking for a thoughtful and beautifully written book about Korean immigrants in America, this is a wonderful choice.
- Audio Cassette
- Publisher: Brilliance Corp (1 March 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1561004189
- ISBN-13: 978-1561004188
- Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 10.8 x 17.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 136 g
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