The most tired piece of advice given to first time novelists is ‘write what you know’. It discounts both the power of imagination and the power of good research; if everyone followed it, the literary landscape would be a lot less interesting. And yet, occasionally, that hackneyed adage can result in something stellar.
HBOT is a controversial therapy that uses pure oxygen to treat a wide variety of conditions. Korean immigrants Pak and Young Yoo run an HBOT centre just outside Washington DC. When the equipment catches fire one day, and two people are killed, the Yoos and their patients all suspect each other of arson. A tense court case will reveal the truth.
Miracle Creek is Angie Kim’s debut. She immigrated to the US from Korea when she was eleven, she used to work as a trial lawyer, and she has done HBOT therapy with one of her three children. Kim has an intimate knowledge of all the main aspects of her novel, and that lends it a substance that would be hard to imagine coming from someone without that experience. The way she weaves different aspects of her personal life into one cohesive narrative, going deep into some tricky emotional terrain that doesn’t often get discussed, is so impressive.
None of the characters here are what we’d usually refer to as ‘likeable’. The unlikability of Elizabeth – who has been indicted under suspicion of being the arsonist – is the whole reason that she’s on trial; her dubious parenting methods and judgemental attitude towards others have left her with few friends and many enemies. But no one comes out of Miracle Creek spotless. Each of these people tell a series of lies to save their own skins, not caring who else they implicate in the process. There are bigger sins too, although to reveal them would spoil some of the book’s many surprises.
Despite all the bad things they have done, despite their cruelty and selfishness, Kim allows us to empathise with each of her characters. Elizabeth was brutally harsh to her son, but she has spent every moment since his death regretting it. Pak hides some valuable information from the police – knowing it’ll point the finger at an innocent person – but he does it to be protective of someone he loves. Their dreadful deeds have all too understandable motives.
The book is centred around a court case, but within the framework of the trial, Kim is able to explore a whole host of issues, mainly around immigration and parenting. This allows the novel to work on two levels: as a courtroom drama/whodunnit, and as something deeper. Though the whodunnit angle is twisty and absorbing, it’s the weightier matters that linger in your head after the final page has been turned. Kim paints a lucid picture of the loneliness and anger of her characters; mothers struggling to parent their disabled children, immigrants feeling isolated in their new countries. By being so honest about the fallibility of these people, she makes them vividly real, their troubles complex and nuanced.
Full of texture and humanity, with a gripping mystery at its centre, Miracle Creek is an excellent debut. Angie Kim is one to watch.
Miracle Creek is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 25 July 2019