Thursday, October 6, 2022

Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

 Native Speaker - Kindle edition by Lee, Chang-rae. Literature & Fiction  Kindle eBooks @

I don’t really remember how this book got on my reading list, but it is an unusual story, written in 1995, by Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee. 


Henry Park, aka Byung-ho, is the son of Korean immigrants. His mother died when he was a child, but his father became a semi-wealthy man by building a chain of grocery stores in New York City. 


Henry met a Scottish-American woman, married her, and had a son, who tragically died in an accident at age 7. The book mostly concerns the events after this, but the earlier parts of the tale are unfolded as the book progresses. 


Through a series of random events, Henry ends up working for Dennis Hoagland at what is probably best described as a private espionage firm. Hoagland’s employees dig up information - sometimes dirt, but often just information that might be of use to…someone - about private citizens. This is, as it sounds, vaguely sinister. For the most part, it is just reputations that are ruined, but occasionally, someone gets killed. Never by Hoagland or his firm of course - they don’t do violence. Just….information. 


Henry is able to mentally compartmentalize all of this for a long time, but the death of his son upends his equilibrium. And also his marriage - the two of them grieve so differently that their relationship comes apart. 


This in turn spirals into additional problems. Henry is given the task of digging up information on a Filipino-American therapist, but ends up becoming a friend - and doing the work of processing his son’s death. At the end of the case, the therapist is “disappeared,” probably by an agent of the Filipino government, although we never find out, for obvious reasons. 


After messing up this assignment, Henry is on thin ice at his job, and has one final chance. He must pose as a campaign volunteer for city councilman John Quang - and eventually steal lists of names for Quang’s under-the-table geh - a club where members contribute funds, and borrow for things like emergencies and setting up businesses. Little does Henry know that Hoagland already has another agent working there, who has no idea that Henry is a co-worker. And things go downhill from there. 


There are a number of narrative threads, all of which work together in the story. What I have described is Henry’s employment. But there is also Henry’s marriage, and his attempts to reconcile with his wife. There is also the story of Henry’s family, with all its complexity. There is the story of John Quang, an immigrant made good, whose success and reputation is threatened not just by Henry’s digging, but by other secrets. 


And then, there are the thematic threads. The problem of being born in America, but not viewed as fully “American” by other Americans. (The white ones mostly, but also African Americans - there is a long history of fraught racial relations there, which Lee discusses.) There is the question of identity. Henry, like many second generation immigrants, struggles to feel either fully Korean, or fully American. And, as the title suggests, there is the question of language. Henry’s parents always spoke with accents, while Henry is a native speaker. Of English, at least. He is bilingual, but he finds his ability to speak Korean with the right native-speaker accent is fading as he ages. He sounds as clumsy talking Korean as his father did speaking English - even though both would qualify as fairly fluent. 


I found the book quite fascinating. It doesn’t feel quite like a typical narrative arc, but more like a bunch of messy threads thrown together in a way that is very much like real life. The narrative, the emotional conflict, the personal conflicts, and the issues of greater society - everything is connected yet separate. It is a ball of threads and a gallery of compartments, both at the same time. 


For the most part, the audiobook was good. David Colacci’s narration got the many accents right (and there are a lot of different ones - Greek included), and his voicing kept the characters separate really well. My main issue is a recurring one. The tracks were just too darn long. Some were nearly three quarters of an hour, which is really inconvenient for commuting. This was a single disc MP3 version, which is fine, but it would have been better had the tracks been broken up.


This book is worth seeking out, if your library has it. The story is interesting, but the emotional layers make it more than just a good story. 


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