NATIVE SPEAKER by Chang-rae Lee


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 In quiet, rich tones, Korean-American Henry Park, the narrator of this debut, speaks more clearly about his estranged wife than about his work. This is only natural, for Henry is employed as a sort of industrial spy, and his most recent assignment is to infiltrate the people surrounding John Kwang, a Korean-American New York City councilman who may be headed for bigger things. Dealing with the slick Kwang causes him to reminisce about his own father, who owned fruit and vegetable stores and encouraged him to marry a white woman. Inadvertently following his father's advice, he ended up married to Lelia, a speech therapist. Their son died at seven when he participated in a ``dog pile'' gone wrong. Subsequently, Lelia wanders off periodically and then finally leaves Henry for good. Lee creates the perfect tone for Henry--distanced, but never ironic or snappish. His observations and memories have the discomfiting feel of revealing truth. He tells how his father made him recite Shakespeare to show off his English for customers, and how one day he was commanded to allow a regular customer to exit a store without paying for an apple she had bitten and returned to a shelf. ``Mostly, though,'' says Henry, ``I threw all my frustration into building those perfect, truncated pyramids of fruit.'' He also describes how his father employed recently arrived immigrants because they were the hardest workers. His grappling with his son's death (``You pale little boys are crushing him, your adoring mob of hands and feet, your necks and heads, your nostrils and knees, your still-sweet sweat and teeth and grunts'') and the slow rapprochement between him and Lelia are wonderfully drawn. The sections on his work are somewhat more challenging, particularly since his exact job is not very clear in the beginning, but Lee's careful prose conveys an immigrant's ability to observe without participating, and an outsider's longing for place and identity. A serious, masterful, and wholly innovative twist on first- generation-American fiction. (First printing of 30,000; first serial to Granta; Quality Paperback Book Club selection; author tour)

Pub Date: March 22nd, 1995
ISBN: 1-57322-001-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1994


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