Of all the characters in Angie Kim’s bestselling debut novel, Miracle Creek, Young Yoo gets the most sympathy. The Korean woman comes to the US in the hope for a better life for her daughter Mary. For this, she has to work a grueling 18-hour shift at the grocery store of her sponsors. When her husband Pak Yoo arrives after four years, she has to take the subservient position again and ‘obey’ Pak’s orders, as is demanded of a wife in Korean society. Mary cannot stand this and is estranged from her mother.
Pak Yoo is not as conversant with American life or the English language as his wife and daughter, which seems to diminish him somehow, makes him cold towards Young, and overindulge the daughter, who has gone through adjustment problems and faced racist taunts at school.
The family moves to rural Virginia and sets up a simple home by the banks of the titular creek. Pak establishes a facility to provide Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) to patients—an alternative and medically unendorsed procedure, to treat conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, infertility and depression.
Despite safety precautions in place, there is an explosion and the resulting fire kills two – eight-year-old Henry and another child’s mother, Kitt. Matt, a doctor married to a Korean woman and forced to endure the treatment, is maimed, Pak is crippled and Mary scarred. Before the fire burns through the HBOT chamber, Pak and his patients had been facing hostile protestors, questioning the efficacy of HBOT and accusing him of being a quack.
The case goes to court, with Henry’s mother Elizabeth Ward being accused of deliberately setting the place on fire to get rid of her son. Looking after a disabled child is a full-time commitment and exhausting for the mothers, who invariably become primary caregivers. Other siblings of the child are neglected, families break up under the strain, while the mother is practically imprisoned. As Teresa observes, “Having a special-needs child didn’t just change you; it transmuted you, transported you to a parallel world with an altered gravitational axis.” All the women secretly wish they could be free of the child, and then flay themselves with the guilt.
Elizabeth’s lawyer, Shannon, investigates the fire meticulously, and points the finger towards Pak, who would benefit by getting a large insurance payout. Pak’s equally aggressive lawyer, Abe, is bent on getting Elizabeth executed for the crime.
The novel unfolds over four days of the trial, as Angie Kim digresses into the stories of Matt and his hyper wife Janine, the mothers of two children undergoing therapy, and of course the troubled minds of the Yoo family.
Pak Yoo has forced his wife and daughter to lie about a crucial moment before the fire, but Young finds, to her dismay, that her husband had hidden a lot more from her. As it turns out, every character has concealed or lied about something.
The writer used to be a litigator, so the courtroom scenes are the most sharply observed and readable, while the novel does go through a few dull portions; the accident/arson seen from the point of view of different witnesses, also necessities some amount of repetition.
Miracle Creek is structured as a ‘whodunit’, but at its core, the intricately plotted novel, is a moving story of family bonds and the sacrifices a ‘good’ parent makes for a child.
By Angie Kim
Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux