Book Review: Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

Last spring, to celebrate our 23rd anniversary, Julie and I kicked Michael out of his lovely parsonage apartment in Old City (okay, actually I asked him very nicely if we could borrow it for a night and he, in his typically easy-going, generous manner, said, “Sure! I’ll make sure there are clean sheets on the bed!”) and we had a lovely evening on the town. The next day Julie picked up Micah from his overnight and took him to capoeira; I was so deliciously content in Michael’s sunny apple-green-and-red living room that I almost cancelled my plans to go hear Robin Black read from her newly released collection of short stories at the Free Library’s Book Fair. Do you ever look back on a simple decision like that, and shudder to think that you almost went the other way? Because all sorts of good things have flowed from going to hear Robin Black read that day — but that’s another story.

This story is about the author who read in the same room, right after Robin: Chang-Rae Lee. Now I will admit that I had never heard of him, but I had recently become friends, through the New Sanctuary Movement, with a Korean-American man named Steven, which in turn had highlighted for me how woefully ignorant I was of everything Korean. So I stayed to hear Chang-Rae Lee read and answer questions, and I found him perfectly charming and funny and humble and all the sorts of things you like to imagine in a writer, and so I bought his book, The Surrendered

Recently I started to read it, and to my dismay I found the prose in the first few pages off-putting. I may have just been in a bad mood, that’s entirely possible. Or it may have been the use of the word “verbiage” — a word that I just HATE for reasons that are not entirely clear to me — on page five. But I found myself wanting — despite the very compelling story — to take a red pen to the prose. I was probably just in a bad mood.

At any rate, I asked Steven (my New Sanctuary/Korean-American/writer/James Joyce-fanatic/all-around-really-smart-guy friend) if he had read The Surrendered and whether he had an opinion about CRL in general. Should I keep reading?

He hadn’t read The Surrendered but liked CRL generally. Try Native Speaker, he said. You’ll like it. So I did, and he was right. In fact, I loved it. (At one point I texted Steven and accused him of actually being CRL: You just hire a charming, attractive actor to make appearances and read for you, right? He knew I would like it, he said, and allowed as how it was, yes, a bit humbling to be so easily summed up, especially since being first generation Korean-American is not primarily how he thinks of himself.)

Native Speaker is the story of Henry Park, a first generation Korean-American man who works as an industrial spy. He is married to a blue-blooded New Englander who has just left him, and he has stoically failed to reconcile his relationship with his dead father or to properly grieve his dead son. His story deals with the sort of no-man’s land he inhabits between his Korean-immigrant self and his American self. When he is assigned to volunteer with, and spy on, the campaign of a prominent and popular Korean-American politician in NYC who is likely planning a run for mayor, the many unresolved areas of Henry’s life begin to demand attention, causing his neatly ordered world to begin unravelling. The outcome, I thought, was bitterly sad, but also quietly hopeful.

I have often felt like I, too, live on the margins of all sorts of identities (wife, mother, Christian, white woman — though I’ve never given much thought to my own first-generation American experience being among them; assimilation becomes more simple and complete, I suppose, when your mother is Dutch). The metaphor I have sometimes used to describe this experience is of a venn diagram; I have to admit that the metaphor of a spy is much more apt and certainly better-suited to the plotting of a terrific novel. It doesn’t hurt that I love spy novels and mysteries, I suppose, but I found the the spy-thriller frame in Native Speaker worked perfectly. I also thought that the writing was always good, and sometimes luminous, with the exception of dialogue which I sometimes found clunky.

Having loved Native Speaker so much, I will most certainly give The Surrendered — and CRL’s other novels as well — a second try.


About Marta Rose

I am a writer and a homemaker living in Philadelphia with my wife Julie and our children, Trixie and Micah.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Book Review: Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee | a woman again --

  2. Colleen says:

    I came across CRL as I heard about his recent book. On flipping through reviews, I decided I’d try Native Speaker first. The farther I get into the book (almost finished) the more moved I am by the account. I find it such a compassionate view of culture, family and gender. Henry seems to be such an authentic character. I like especially being inside Henry’s own mind, but then seeing how he interacts with others. Some of the passages contain beautifully written truths. Thanks for writing about this find – I am still trolling the internet to see what others thing of this book.

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