Jan. 24th, 2010

tispity: (Book fort)
Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee

...a good spook has no brothers, no sisters, no father, no mother. He's intentionally lost that huge baggage, those encumbering remnants of blood and flesh, and because of this he carries no memory of a house, no memory of a land, he seems to have emerged from nowhere. He's brought himself forth, self-cesarean.

This is nominally the story of a detective - or more honestly, a spy. Korean-American Henry Park works for a rather shady firm and is hired to infiltrate the entourage of rising ethnic political star John Kwang, to get to know the man and to report back any compromising material he may uncover. It's an interesting scenario but, unlike probably any other spy novel you'd care to name, very little actually happens here. Tracking back over the plot there are really only two or three big events in the whole book. Far more than a spy novel, this is a searching character study of the sort of person who makes a good spy: aloof, watchful, detached. In Henry, a character who in many ways fails to be "a good spook", Lee masterfully bundles up these qualities with an analysis of the emotional experience of first and second generation immigrants, who are also at once part of American society and pushed to its margins. As well as exploring Henry's links with his late father and various members of the local Korean community the novel also deals with universal themes of love and loss as it narrates Henry's cautious attempts to win back the affections of his American wife and rekindle their marriage following the tragic death of their young son, an event we learn of retrospectively through a series of flashbacks. Indeed not a great deal of anything really happens in the present tense in Native Speaker, a fact that cleverly recreates for the reader the much described experiences of alienation and detachment, but one which also, I felt, stopped me from warming to Henry as fully as he probably deserved. Despite this, Native Speaker kept me reading because it's such an honest book and much of its prose reads like it comes directly from the heart (Lee emigrated to the US from his native Seoul when was three) and while I don't rate this as highly as Lee's brilliant second novel A Gesture Life, I think those of you who enjoy the similarly-themed work of authors like Khaled Hosseini could do much worse than give it a try.


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September 2010

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