Going undercover to reveal truths“Native Speaker” by Chang-Rae Lee is a fascinating, elegantly written novel about a first-generation Korean-American, Henry Park, grappling for survival in New York when everything in his personal life seems to be falling apart. The book’s language is compelling, as are the situations it presents.
After a family tragedy, Park’s American wife leaves him at the airport with an unsettling message which bares his character in cold and stark terms. Park doesn’t even attempt to explain himself or his feelings.
To the reader, however, his recollections of events are poignant and heart-rending. His close and yet conflicted relationship with his traditionalist Korean father, his memories of childhood, the loss of his mother, the sudden appearance of a woman from Korea to work as his father’s housekeeper, the past warmth in his marriage and the death of his son detail the complexities of his life. And then, there is his job.
Park is a spy, not in international espionage, but as an investigator who digs up information about persons or organizations working against his clients. Park’s job requires him to hide his true feelings and identity, which serves as a metaphor for his quest to find his way in the culture of his adopted country.
While working undercover, Park finds himself drawn to a New York City councilman, the Korean-American John Kwang, who serves as a charismatic father-like figure. Park, however, has been assigned to Kwang’s office to dig up “dirt” to use against the councilman in his pending bid for the mayor’s office. The story weaves its way back to other assignments, introduces Park’s colleagues and all sorts of intrigue that culminates in a surprising ending.
For readers wishing to explore the thoughts of an absorbing character in an adopted land ― this tale is well worthwhile.
by Mary Louise Heseltine