Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim


A literary courtroom drama about a Korean immigrant family and a young, single mother accused of murdering her eight-year-old autistic son

My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first . . .

In the small town of Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. An addictive debut novel for fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng, Miracle Creek is both a twisty page-turner and a deeply moving story about the way inconsequential lies and secrets can add up—with tragic consequences.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Where this book lands, it will leave a bruise.

After I finished, I sat there a long time, like a bolt-struck tree seared to its roots. My thoughts would not settle on the well-worn words. I felt as if I needed to do something, but I didn’t know what. A tight, reluctant ache might have eased about my heart ever since, but the impression of the event of Miracle Creek is burned indelibly upon it.

So, whats this book about?

The Yoos, an immigrant family from Korea, conduct hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) sessions (or “dives”) in a pressurized, submarine-like chamber that is believed to be effective in remediating a wide range of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, and infertility. When a fire breaks out near the oxygen tanks during a treatment session, leaving two patients dead, and others paralyzed or permanently scarred, everyone’s grief is inarticulate, still entangled in their shock. It was like a nightmare and they expected, each moment, to wake to a fierce and flooding relief, but there was no waking. The Yoo family sink to the darkest depths of their horror when, a year later, they must testify against Elizabeth Ward who is accused of orchestrating the fatal explosion to kill her son, Henry, who’d been undergoing HBOT to treat his autism. But things are seldom what they seem. Elizabeth’s trial throws all antecedent events into a kind of glaring Technicolor. Speculation and rumor race down every corridor, and soon, secrets fill the courtroom, thinning the air until nobody can breathe.

Did Elizabeth’s “puppeteer-parenting” of Henry sheathe a keen and very pointed streak of malice toward her 8-year-old son? Do Pak’s incessant lies and the regrets he would not utter conceal insidious designs to latch onto an insurance money? Were the protestors who had threatened Elizabeth of this very fate finally willing to see it through? Or was there another murderer nesting in the rural Virginia town of Miracle Creek like a poisonous spider?

Secrets hung from everyone’s necks like a yoke—and it’ll come a point where they are simply too hefty to bear.

Miracle Creek is bracingly original, unrelentingly erudite and outstandingly addictive; this novel is undoubtedly a welcome rescue in a sea of murder mysteries.

There are a staggering number of elements to this story that the author must juggle, and Angie Kim practically levitates them. She paces her narrative like a pro, and she does so in a richly textured prose that is also sharp and vivid. Kim’s storytelling is taut and lean and the plot speeds by, brisk and uncluttered—but it yields no simplicity. Plot twists abound, even to the last page, hurling at the reader’s head like stones. It was like assembling a long line of dominoes—one event inevitably leads to the next—and the ending is less an “ah-ha!” moment and more like a relief valve being released, my mind feeling almost hollow in its relief, as if a storm had gone through.

The deftness with which Angie Kim manipulates our sympathies and anticipation is also remarkable. She clasps the reader’s mind and spins it around her fingers, weightless as a magic trick. Kim gives just enough light through the window of her story to lend depth to the darkness, defying me each time I thought I knew what was coming. Time went undetected, unmeasured, as I moved relentlessly over the story, an undertow of dread tugging at my thoughts, feeling my way through the minefield of secrets like it might explode at any given moment. A dozen different thoughts crowded through the small fragment of time I had left for thinking, my mind straining to remember any telling inflection or subtle information that I might’ve missed—but understanding always slipped away before I could seize it.

Miracle Creek’s biggest triumph, however, is the succinctness and precision with which the author navigates an enormously complicated emotional territory, cradling each of her characters in a haunting story that pulls the readers’ feelings in different directions.

The story is told by eyewitnesses whose reliability is, to be charitable, problematic. First-person narration alternates seamlessly between seven characters, all of whom were present the night the explosion happened, including the Yoo family (Pak and Young Yoo and their teenage daughter, Mary), Elizabeth, Matt (a doctor who was undergoing HBOT for infertility) and his Korean-American wife, Janine, and finally, Teresa, who survived the explosion with her daughter Rosa.

Angie Kim assembles their stories into a beguilingly intricate portrait of loss as well as a weary pursuit for justice. The author’s experience as a formal trial lawyer shines through the courtroom scenes like a beacon, and I was held firmly captivated. Kim’s choice to immerse her readers in one character’s thoughts and opinions before expanding or completely refuting them with those of another also carries its own fascination. My allegiance kept shifting too quickly to track, and it often felt like my mind was being pulled into a hundred pieces and then flung out into the world.

Miracle Creek is, moreover, starkly profound, and it’s not just the heady revelations that leave readers devastated. The notion of choices and consequences underpins all of Miracle Creek, but the book is just as much about identity, family and the sprawling lengths a parent is willing to go in order to protect their child.

Kim’s exploration of immigrant identity and belonging is deeply resonant. Young Yoo left the last tatters of their lives in Korea for a daughter she wanted to grow up a stranger to sorrow and loneliness. For years, Young worked excruciating hours, slept little and ate less, the promise of a better tomorrow pinning her to a low-paid job like an anchor, but reminding her how far she and her daughter have traveled away from each other, while Pak is oceans away, settling into the role of a “wild-goose-father” (which is, according to the novel, a term Koreans use to describe a man who remains in Korea to work while his wife and children moved abroad for better education). The hope, that had leapt so easily in Young’s breast when, after four years, the family is reunited again, crashes when the trials and tribulations of living as an immigrant come barreling through the door. The novel also shows how men are educated into their gender, as portrayed in Young’s quick acquiescence and Pak’s tendency to talk down at her with the condescension of an old papa towards a dimwit child, and offers up myriad means of understanding the complicated relationships in the book.

Miracle Creek also devotes ample page time to reflect upon the challenges and rewards of caring for a special-needs child with the kind of soul-baring honesty that snags at you. My capacity for feeling was particularly unwieldly when it came to Elizabeth’s chapters, as the mother who, despite genuinely loving her child, refused to see anything about him beyond her own misplaced attempts to “cure” him of autism. Reading some of those chapters was deeply unsettling. My heart seriously ached for Henry, and my hatred for Elizabeth’s choices was sometimes so intense it seemed a physical thing, pressing on me, both burning and icy at the same time. Kim fields the torn-open stomach of parenthood lucidly, and at times harrowingly, without offering any easy answers—and that’s one of the many ways in which this book succeeds.

In addition to all of that, Miracle Creek examines, at great length, the fetishizaton of Asian women. “Who decided it was normal to be attracted to blondes and Jews and Republicans, but not to Asian women?” writes Kim, “Why was “fetish,” with its connotation of sexual deviance, reserved for Asian women?

Highly recommended.

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