FROM THE OPENING PAGES of Miracle Creek, Angie Kim creates an intense atmosphere of foreboding and suspense, building swiftly to the event that triggers the rest of her debut novel, unraveling so many lives and lies.
Young Yoo, the wife of Pak Yoo, goes about her normal routine in Miracle Creek, Virginia, one August evening in 2008. Except her quotidian tasks are rather unusual: she and her husband offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy — also known as HBOT — in their barn, of all places. Their business, Miracle Submarine, provides a pressurized chamber where the air is filled with 100 percent oxygen. Her household routine is interrupted by a call from her husband, asking her to cover for him at post while their clients (patients) are sealed inside the chamber. He requests that she tell no one, and emphasizes that no one should ever know he stepped away.
In the six pages that open the novel — a section titled, rather ominously, “The Incident” — we are immersed in and share Young’s anxiety and discomfort with the lie as she mans the barn, then is forced to race to their modest home, next to the business, for essential batteries. We have a building dread about the six patients, three adults and three children, sealed inside the chamber.
As she heads quickly back, Young sees her daughter Mary running and then, “I see her, my Meh-hee, in that moment. Her body flings up like a rag doll and arcs through the air. Gracefully. Delicately. Just before she lands on the ground with a soft thud, I see her ponytail, bouncing high. The way it used to when she was a little girl, jumping rope.”
A tiny change in the routine, a tiny white lie, and everything is irrevocably altered.
The novel jumps a year ahead, now closely following Young’s appearance in court, as she watches the prosecution of a former client, Elizabeth Ward, for murder. Elizabeth’s son Henry and Elizabeth’s estranged friend Kitt Kozlowski died in the explosion at Miracle Submarine. As Young watches and the prosecution proceeds, Elizabeth is emotionless, without a tear or an apology.
How interesting, we think, we’ve found the villain. Will this now be an exploration of an emotionless defendant as in Camus’s Meursault from The Stranger?
Angie Kim has much, much more to investigate as the trial proceeds.
This novel is a stunner, emotionally packed, with separate characters delivering internal plot twists and turns. Part family drama, part trial drama, part culture war drama — digging into sensitive topics like parenthood, immigration, infertility, and alternative therapy — this novel is all secrets, secrets, secrets. In multiple narratives, we see events from different points of view as they unfold, or as they are recalled, or through statements and mental asides during testimony. It’s dense with story lines but never confusing; the reader turns pages eagerly, waiting, wondering what could possibly happen next and how it will all resolve.
One of the point-of-view characters is Matt, a white radiologist injured in the explosion. As we get to know his story, we find that his life is intertwined with the Yoos: his wife, Janine, is from one of the handful of Korean families in the area, and insisted he take these treatments a) to give the business an endorsement, coming from a medical professional, a doctor, and b) to treat his low sperm count. Matt is embarrassed and humiliated that Janine’s family, as investors in the enterprise, are now aware of his virility issues. During his testimony Matt thinks: “He could go on at length about it, how Janine staged it perfectly, inviting him to dinner at her parents’ house without one word about the Yoos or HBOT or, worst of all, Matt’s expected ‘contribution.’ A fucking ambush.”
One idea Kim explores, under-represented in popular culture, is the cost, psychic and spiritual, of leaving one’s homeland to pursue dreams or a “better” future in the United States. Kim does a marvelous job in excavating the emotional toll of this move on the three family members: Mary (formerly known as Meh-hee), Young, and Pak. For four years, Pak was a “wild goose” father, the Korean phrase for a man who sends his family abroad and flies to visit them once a year. While Pak waited for his visa to join his wife and daughter, Young sat in a tiny bullet-proof glass vault, working 16 hours a day, rarely seeing her daughter, never seeing the America outside of the convenience store. These are a few of the multiple painful sacrifices the Yoos endured to ensure Mary a better life. So much separation and sadness.
When Pak finally made it to the United States, he moved the family to Miracle Creek, a bucolic community an hour outside of Washington, DC. Young reflects:
It was funny how desperate she’d been to escape that gritty world, and yet she missed it now. Miracle Creek was insular, with longtime residents […] She thought they might be slow to warm, so she focused on befriending one family nearby who’d seemed especially nice. But over time, she realized: they weren’t nice; they were politely unfriendly. Young knew the type. Her own mother belonged to this breed of people […] Their stiff hyperpoliteness — the wife’s perpetual closed-lip smile, the husband’s ma’am at the beginning or end of every sentence — kept Young at a distance and reinforced her status as a stranger.
In addition to cultural isolation is the isolation within families, and in this novel the focus is on this immigrant family. Young recalls the misunderstandings that began in their courtship:
It had been in Pak’s village where they’d had their first fight […] What Pak didn’t understand was that she actually liked his village, the tranquility of escaping the chemical-scented smog and construction noises from every corner of Seoul as it remade itself for the Olympics […] “It’s hard to believe you come from a place like this.” Pak took it as belittling, as confirmation of his long-simmering belief that Young’s family (and, by extension, Young herself) regarded him as “beneath” her, when in fact Young meant it as a compliment, a tribute to his raising himself from squalor to the university.
The silences between this Young and Pak have unexpected repercussions for their lives in the United States.
Sacrifice as a parent is indeed a theme, as the parents of children with physical or mental challenges pay for their alternative medical treatment at Miracle Submarine. Listening to Matt’s testimony, so emotionally abbreviated from her own memories, Teresa thinks, “Having a special-needs child didn’t just change you; it transmuted you, transported you to a parallel world with an altered gravitational axis.” Three mothers are part of the patient group at the center of Miracle Creek: Teresa Santiago, who has a daughter with cerebral palsy; Kitt, a mother of five children including one with severe autism; and Elizabeth, the mother of a son with multiple challenges who showed remarkable improvement until his death. Elizabeth is a character who seems to shift dramatically, depending on the perspective: an incredibly dedicated and amazing caretaker, or outrageously neurotic, or maybe a stone-cold murderer. Elizabeth’s regimen to treat Henry’s OCD, ADD, anxiety, and sensory and autism spectrum disorders included eye-tracking exercises, emotion identification homework, speech therapy, neurofeedback, and the meticulous elimination of suspect food. Henry’s condition defined her entire life. Or was it a pathology she herself created?
Young muses, “[P]erhaps the newspapers were right. Perhaps Elizabeth had been desperate to get rid of her son, and now that he was dead, she finally had a measure of peace. Perhaps she had been a monster all along.”
As these mothers search to improve the lives of their children, they face a consistent onslaught of judgment and scrutiny, no matter that there is no one right way to raise a child with disability or illness. Elizabeth and Kitt argued with each other, Kitt far more lax in her food allergy approach, which incensed Elizabeth. A group of protestors — mothers of children with autism — gathered at Miracle Submarine, angry and outraged that families wouldn’t accept their children with autism precisely as they were. The protestors made threats while warning of the possibility of an HBOT fire — how far might their righteous indignation go?
As we learn more about each character, we find that everyone has secrets, and that most of them are lying, for their own murky reasons. Right up to the explosion so many people were secretly doing precisely what they shouldn’t have been doing — an illicit relationship, hidden business transactions, a dangerous cigarette, a private meeting in the woods. We begin to wonder: Whose lives will crumble under all the public testimony and scrutiny? And who really did cause the explosion?
Angie Kim gives the reader a supremely masterful unraveling in this tense, psychologically astute, emotionally riveting, suspense-filled literary thriller.