I thought I was finished with the downward spiral into Imposter Syndrome I experienced yesterday, but I wasn’t.
So I walked away from my computer, ran errands, and came home to finish reading Angie Kim’s exceptional debut novel, Miracle Creek,
My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first. It was just a small thing, what he wanted. The police had just released the protestors, and while he stepped out to make sure they weren’t coming back, I was to sit in his chair. Cover for him, the way coworkers do as a matter of course, the way we ourselves used to at the grocery store, while I ate or he smoked. But as I took his seat, I bumped against the desk, and the certificate above it went slightly crooked as if to remind me that this wasn’t a regular business, that there was a reason he’d never left me in charge before.
Pak reached over me to straighten the frame, his eyes on the English lettering: Pak Yoo, Miracle Submarine LLC, Certified Hyberbaric Technician. He said–eyes still on the certificate, as if talking to it, not to me–“Everything’s done. The patients are sealed in, the oxygen’s on. You just have to sit here.” He looked at me. “That’s it.”
I looked over the controls, the unfamiliar knobs and switches for the chamber we’d painted baby blue and placed in this barn just last month. “What if the patients buzz me?” I said. “I’ll say you’ll be right back, but–“
“No, they can’t know I’m gone. If anyone asks, I’m here. I’ve been here the whole time.”
And that lie, that simple little lie, opens Angie Kim’s amazing debut, Miracle Creek, which is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, if not one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.
Miracle Creek is and isn’t a legal thriller. The present-day setting of the book is a trial; but it’s also more than that, if that makes sense. A woman is on trial for setting a fire that results in two deaths and several bad injuries–it’s a lot more complicated than that, technically; it has to do with an alternative therapy in which people with chronic issues, such as autism or cerebral palsy or, in one case, low sperm count, are put into a submarine like contraption and gradually subjected to the same kind of pressure you’d get several fathoms down while breathing pure oxygen. The pressurization and the pure oxygen theoretically will help with these “incurable” conditions. The owner of the business, Miracle Submarine in Miracle Creek, Virginia, is a Korean immigrant named Pak Yoo; his wife and daughter help with the business. Someone starts a fire that ignites one of the oxygen tanks and sends flames through the tubes which supply the “submarine” passengers with air to breath, and there’s ultimately an explosion.
Elizabeth, the divorced mother of an autistic son, Henry, chose not to go into the tank with her son that night; her son is one of the victims. She also chose that night to rearrange the way everyone is seated inside, guaranteeing that her son was one of those attached to the tank that goes up and is killed. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to point to her guilt, and she is arrested and put on trial.
Mary Yoo, the daughter, is also blown up and scarred; she also goes into a coma for two months.
The book also bounces around from multiple points of view; all in the first person, and juggling these points of view, different voices and different experiences, is not an easy thing to do; Kim, in her debut novel, manages this with extraordinary skill.
This method of telling the story also allows Kim to share the true story of what happened that night, how one lie can lead to another, and how circumstances can all come together in a horrifying instant–if this hadn’t happened or she hadn’t done this or he had decided to do this, all of this could have been avoided–this randomness that can lead to tragedy, is horrific to contemplate but all too horrifyingly realistic and true.
Going inside the heads of different characters also allows Kim to explore multitudes of themes, all grouped together under the heading of parenting.
One of Stephen King’s greatest gifts as a writer, I have always felt, is how he is completely unafraid to take risks with who his characters are; he isn’t afraid to expose those horrible thoughts his characters have and the guilt that comes with those thoughts and feelings; it makes his characters come to life in a way less skilled writers can only dream about; Kim does the same, making her characters so real in their ugliness and their guilt, unafraid to show that parenting is an ugly job that sometimes has wonderful benefits but showing how the day-to-day grind can sometimes wear a person down into saying or thinking things that are only too human but too horrible to contemplate or share with anyone else, that sense of resentment that is only too human but also too horrible to let anyone else know.
Her portrayal of the Korean immigrants, the racism they encounter, the fragile bonds of family that connect them yet also fray in a different world and culture than what they are used to, is overwhelmingly compelling.
On every level, the characters and their relationships–whether its husband and wife, mother and child, father and child–areas layered and complex and complicated as the truth of the night of the tragedy.
All of the characters are flawed, all of them heartbreaking in their humanity, but perhaps the best, the strongest, the one who I will always remember, the one I keep coming back to is Elizabeth, single mother of an autistic only child, the defendant, whose humanity and heartbreak and guilt and suffering is almost too painful to contemplate, to read, and as the truth comes rushing out at the end…wow.
You’re only as sick as your secrets.
This book is amazing. I cannot recommend it enough.