This is another one of the “grab everything you’ve had your eye on and can find” library books that I managed to bring home before it closed due to coronavirus. In fact, this is the second time I had checked the particular one out from the library, but I just couldn’t get to it before it was due back last time. So, a small silver lining to this “shelter in place” situation is that there are no due dates and I’m having a chance to really work through so many backlist and library books that I think otherwise would have continued to get passed over. That, plus I’m glad the timing worked out for me to pick this one up during AAPI Heritage Month – the perfect storm.
“This city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor, was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder, was it, that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow. Because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.”
Grace Park is a sheltered young woman living in LA, working at her parent’s pharmacy and living at home with them. Her biggest issue is her sister’s falling out with their mother two years ago. Shawn Matthews has left the gang days of his youth behind him (as best he can), living a quiet life with a steady job and a happy relationship. But a violent crime throws their paths together and neither is able to stay in the bubble or new life (respectively) that they had created for themselves. Grace learns shocking information about her mother that changes everything she thought she knew about her, while Shawn is forced to re-face emotions and loss that he’s tried to forget, or at least learn to live with.
This was a fictionalized story based on the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991 in LA, a contributing event to the LA Riots/Uprising (along with many others, and myriad other issues of racism, police violence and racial tension). The “story” of the murder, and the resulting sentence (or lack thereof) for the shooter, Soon Ja Du, are recreated throughout this novel in almost identical detail. The majority of the rest of the plot, that of the events between the two families in current day, based around the perspectives of Shawn (the brother of the fictional version of Latasha) and Grace (the daughter of the fictional version of Soon Ja Du) are created from the mind of the author. I thought this was a really creative way to bring focus to the singular event from the years of the LA Riots/Uprising and to set this novel is a solid ground of reality, which allowed for some intense exploration of difficult themes of interpersonal racism and structural racism. But it also made it possible to do that without overly encroaching upon the personal lives and details of anyone actually involved. On a more personal level, this time period is really a blind spot for me. I was alive in 1991 and 1992, but at 2 or 3 years old, I was too young to know any of this was happening. But when I was in school, it was too recent to be covered in a history class, especially since I was on the other side of the country, so it wasn’t even local “history” that might have made it into a curriculum. And, of course, there is the entire issue of whitewashing history nationwide, as well. So, I have to say, this novel sparked a lot of Google-ing for more context and information. Which I appreciate deeply; the opportunity to address my personal blinds spots is a major reason that I read. In addition to that, this whole novel presented racial tension through a lens I’ve never read before (Asian and Black), nor, I have to be honest, I’d ever much considered or been aware of. Again, I appreciate the chance to address that blind spot.
As basic review topics go, I feel that I must comment briefly on the writing and plot. Both were fantastic. There was a flow to the writing that made it easy to move through and very compelling. Plus, the back and forth perspectives of Grace and Shawn, with occasional “flashback” chapters that giving insight into the events of 1991 that led to this current day conflict, kept things moving as well. And the plot itself, while not particularly difficult to guess (I “figured it out” pretty early on and I’m not usually that great at guessing plot directions), unfolded in a well-paced way that kept me invested and pulled me along. I wanted to keep reading to see how the characters would act and react, no matter that I already knew major plot points. Overall, this is a book that reads very quickly. One note here: it may not be for everyone, but I was happy with where/how this novel ended. There are no easy fixes to the questions this book brings up (discussed further below), though some are morally clearer/more imperative that others, for sure. And though the state of the country right now makes me guess (in a negative way) what would likely happen next, where blame would fall/be taken out, the way the books ends leaves room for hope that some sort of “end” could be found for these violent and unfair cycles, that a better and fairer future is possible.
And last, I’d like to discuss what I felt like was the “meat” of this novel: the questions it raises and explores. This novel brings up quite a few very difficult and complex questions, none of which have any good or clear answers. Grace and her sister struggle with the concept of “hating the sin, loving the sinner” and at what point that philosophy makes you blinded or complicit. And further than that, Grace deals quite a bit with the issue of “it’s not personal until it is” or until it’s too late. The violent way the bubble she lives in is popped is terrible, but makes her (and the reader) consider how fair it was that she was able to live in that bubble in the first place. There was a quite a bit of time spent exploring the complex overlay of circumstance and decision, that intersection of environment and personal responsibility that is the cornerstone of many “debates” about structural inequalities. And, bearing in mind this is just my opinion of how I read/interpreted it, Cha did a wonderful job presenting it in a balanced way. And last, a question that I have seen asked/challenged a lot in recent reads (most notably, Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name), why is it that a victim must be above reproach, be “going somewhere big” or somehow be greater/more than a normal, average person in order for their life/loss to be tragic and important? A person’s “mundane” place in daily life should be enough worth to make their life important, their loss a tragedy. That question is one that’s been on my mind lately, and it touched me, through Cha’s writing and portrayal, in a big way.
I was just entranced by this novel. There was so much complex emotional, reactionary, magnificently realistically flawed humanity in these characters and Cha did a wonderful job bringing them to life, infusing that humanity into stories and histories that so easily are written away with generalizations and the mass forgetting that comes with the passing of time. And she did it all while writing a captivating page-turner. Although it’s been almost 30 years since the 1991 events in LA that inspired this novel, the story is still achingly familiar on a horribly consistent basis and this perspective is such an important one to bring to/keep in the public gaze, to remind everyone that things haven’t changed nearly as much as they should and must.
*Edited to add: I read this book and wrote this before the murder of George Floyd and the upsurge in support for the BLM movement…my initial reactions on where and how blame would be placed remain correct, but I have greater hope as far as the nation’s ability to truly work to change that now. We shall see.*
A few quotes/passages that I highlighted while reading:
“If this was fire, they were flame. They were part of it, safe within the blaze.”
“She felt guilty about it, but she couldn’t force herself to keep caring about this boy she’d never met, not with any passion, not when it seemed like the rest of the world was moving on.”
“…an ordinary girl who meant the world to him.”
“…he hated that perfection was what the world required to mourn her.”
“…they’d built their house on sand, and the rain had come down and the waters risen, the cold swallow of the real world.”
“Maybe this was just how the world worked: people forgot awful truths all the time, or at least they forgot to remember.”
“His innocence didn’t protect him. He couldn’t choose his way to a life without trouble.”
“It was enough to make him wonder why anyone bothered – kids were gonna be kids, and no matter what you did, some would get in trouble; some would get arrested; some would die. He knew the answer, of course. You bothered because you had no choice. There was no love without the bothering.”