Koreans, Autism and Isolation – How ‘Miracle Creek’ Hits Close to Home

I was wondering whether to put ‘Cultural Differences’ instead of ‘Koreans’ in my title. Could ‘Koreans’ somehow sound a bit …  I don’t know … politically incorrect, I wondered. Especially since the word is followed by ‘autism’ and ‘isolation’, neither of which has positive associations. But no, I decided to stick to ‘Koreans’. After all, the author of this wonderful book is Korean (she moved to the US from Seoul in her adolescence), and writes about her people’s culture with authenticity and frankness.

Miracle Creek is a courtroom drama that centres round the crime riddle: who set fire to the experimental medical treatment device (colloquially known as the ‘miracle submarine), burning alive two people in the process?

So it’s essentially a Who done it, but so, so much more. The author deals with the complex, at times traumatic, cultural differences (ah, there I go!) that immigrants have to deal with when settling in a foreign country – in the protagonists’ case, to give their daughter a better future. The ‘reduced personality’ they feel when trying to function in their adopted new language, the schooling problems for the daughter, the horrendous overload of work hours for the mother, the limitations of recognition for the scientist-father, the isolation … all of these obstacles in their new lives are depicted by Angie Kim in a sensitive and empathetic way which totally consumes the reader. Well, at least it consumed this particular reader-cum-blogger.

Maybe it’s because I work in international education – in particular in one school where over 50% of the student roll is Korean (though expatriate rather than immigrant) – that I felt so utterly in tune with this novel. I already know quite a lot about the Koreans’ idiosyncrasies, shall we say – their emphasis on education, their determination to succeed, their drive, their workaholic addiction, their extraordinary ability in mathematics and music, their daunting challenges with the English language, their dislike of old buildings, their preference for anything modern – the more glass and steel the better … and so on and so on. (Whenever our school conducts a parental survey, the nineteenth-century premises are criticised by the Korean community for their inefficiency and out-datedness, yet praised by other nationalities for their Hogwarts-style charm and historic appeal!)

These are all purely external factors, easy for an outsider to discern. But Angie Kim’s novel achieves far more than mere external observations which any Joe Boggs can make. (Observations which inevitably lead to the stereoptyping of different nationalities.) The author of Miracle Creek has succeeded in achieving something far subtler and at the same time far grander than this. She’s allowed us the privilege of having a preview into the existence of a perceived ‘outsider’ – in this novel’s case, the immigrant family. How difficult it is to assimilate, to acclimatise, adapt, accept … and how easy to long for what you once had, at times madly regret your decision to abandon your home country for another world, all in the name of a better future.

All these longings and inner conflicts are brilliantly portrayed in Miracle Creek. But what I found most moving of all about this extraordinary book is the author’s deep insight into the world of special needs children and the impact such a world has on their families. Mostly, on their mothers. Angie Kim shows a phenomenal understanding of the daily limitations and frustrations that the parents of these ‘special’ children feel – having to deal with wheelchairs, medication, limited speech, sometimes total lack of speech, lack of eye contact, lack of concentration, the inability to integrate with ‘normal’ children. She empathises with the mothers’ envy – even bitter jealousy, at times – of those ‘normal families’ who have it so easy without even realising it, and the subsequent guilt that such negative feelings generate. She understands the need to feel acceptance of their children and their situation, rather than self-pity and anger … the need not to regret, not wonder what if, not guiltily imagine an entirely different scenario, an easier existence, a normal existence. But above all, she celebrates the overriding compulsion they feel to love their child at all cost, to push forward, drive forward, try out new treatments, never give up on hope that things might improve, and in the meantime, just to keep on supporting, keep on loving.

I’ve focused exclusively on the background and the inner world of the novel’s characters, to the exclusion of detailing the actual story line. But a synopsis is easy for anyone to look up elsewhere. What I will reiterate just briefly, before tying up this review, is that quite apart from the beautiful writing and the haunting themes, there is also a gripping plot in this book that keeps you turning the pages and wondering throughout who did it.

All in all, when you combine the courtroom drama suspense with the intensity of isolation portrayed in so many different forms, and the impact that such an existence has on yourself and on others, you end up with a truly memorable work of literature. One which should make us think twice before showing impatience to a foreigner with halting English, or to a mother with a child making loud and irritating noises in public. We’re all part of the same world, and just by fluke of chance we happen to be who we are.

Congratulations to Angie Kim for reminding us of that incontrovertible fact, and at the same time providing us with a bloody good read.

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