By Katherine Min ’80. New York City: Knopf, 2006. 288 pp. $23 hardcover.
Reviewed by Rand Richards Cooper ’80
Katherine Min’s elegant debut novel opens with a narrator recently discharged from a pediatric burn unit, following a fire that destroyed her house and killed her parents. The year is 1976. Her name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, and she is 18 years old. Recovering from a severe burn injury, Isadora tells us, involves a special meditative effort. “The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus,” she explains. “[Y]ou try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts.”
It is with just such small acts of retrieval and inward focus that Isadora recounts the pain of growing up in the house of her Korean immigrant parents. Secondhand World puts Katherine Min in the company of Amy Tan, Chang Rae Lee, Edwidge Danticat and other writers who explore the identity gulf separating immigrant parent from assimilated child. An American girl who speaks no Korean, Isadora tells us that her grandparents resisted her parents’ marriage because an astrologer warned, “given my parents’ birth dates and the distance between the bottom of my father’s nose and his top lip, that it was an inauspicious match.” Isa’s own parents seem not much less strange to her. Min paints detailed portraits of Isa’s rigid, patriarchal father (“I am a scientist, Myung Hee, and scientists require evidence”) and her nervous and unhappy mother, a woman fixated on physical appearance, saving money so that Isa can have cosmetic surgery to make her eyes seem rounder.
A double bind afflicts an immigrant child, caught between the rock of her parents’ irreducible strangeness and the hard place of rejection by her peers. Where does she fit in? Isa endures the taunts of school bullies who call her “Chinky,” even as she experiences a 1970s adolescence that couldn’t be more mythically American—yukking it up with friends over The Man From U.N.C.L.E; tentatively smoking pot; undertaking sexual discoveries with her boyfriend, Herold, whom she nicknames Hero. An albino, “exotic in an almost botanical way,” Hero reflects Isa’s own pariah otherness (students cruelly leave carrots outside his locker, as if for a rabbit); her “fellow freak,” he is “the only other person in school who could make me feel more ordinary.”
The novel proceeds episodically, recounting an early tragedy that befalls the family, when Isa’s younger brother, Stephen, dies in a freak driveway accident, and its long reverberation in the family’s life. Over time, Isa’s father grows ever more resistant to American ways (talking with her, he clings to her Korean name), while her mother’s relentless focus on exteriors belies her increasingly desperate desire for a more vivid interior life. What gives the novel its power are the deep undercurrents of family ambivalence it reveals. To her pals, Isa mimics her father’s difficulty with l’s and r’s in English. Her shame and guilt at this betrayal precipitate still more betrayals. Isa knows how to hit her parents where it hurts most. “You couldn’t keep Stephen safe!” she shouts at her mother.
Are any people held to higher standards than the parents of a teenaged child? Such judgment lands harder still upon immigrant parents, whose very existence is in some measure an affront to their children. Isa dismisses her parents’ marriage as a “charade of love.” Calling her father “severe,” her mother “capricious and self-centered,” she wonders, How could two such people love each other? “Their intimacy baffled and annoyed me,” she confesses, “and because I could not understand it, I was seized with the desire to destroy it.” When Isa approaches her father with a devastating revelation, she wishes inwardly for “Hamlet’s fine oratory,” but really it is King Lear her action evokes, that victim of “filial ingratitude… sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” The house fire that follows soon after Isa’s mission of destruction is a sensationally convenient metaphor—one that struck me as unnecessary. You read this book not for the literal conflagration, but for Min’s fine depiction of the resentments smoldering beneath the family’s surface.
Secondhand World unfolds in more than 60 short chapters, with curt titles—“Breadmaking,” “Damage,” “Mr. Magoo”—that hint, sometimes wryly, sometimes ominously, at events in Isa’s life. Min deploys these vignettes in a kind of narrative pointillism, assembling a large story from small bits. Her prose, though carefully controlled, favors lyricism and the exquisite word. “For most of my life,” Isa says of her mother, “I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements.” Even the prospect of a marital fight overheard by young children is burnished with lyricism: “we learned to listen for the waves of sound breaking upon each other, pitching toward crescendo, then falling, shrinking, finally slipping into a silence that was not exactly peace, but respite.”
Anyone who spent big stretches of childhood sunk in books will feel a stab of recognition at Isa. Her reckless sexual escapades notwithstanding, she remains a private and bookish person, collecting favorite words (“calliope,” “lacuna”) on note cards, providing her boyfriend’s band with lyrics adapted from a Wallace Stevens poem. Literature, it is clear, provides relief from her parents and their all-but-overwhelming loneliness—even as it sharpens an intelligence that will enable her to evoke that loneliness. Drenched in sorrowing loss, Secondhand World shows us a mother cutting up a dead son’s overalls for rags; a father standing by an unused swing set. These are “snapshots,” Min writes, “pinpoints of illumination against a background of darkness.”
Cooper is the author of two works of fiction and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He reviewed new fiction by professor Ilán Stavans in the Fall/Winter ’06 issue of Amherst.