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Giving up the ghosts

Secondhand World A Novel Katherine Min Alfred A. Knopf: 280 pp., $23

November 26, 2006|Deborah Vankin | Deborah Vankin is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

IF there is such a thing as a "pretty novel," Katherine Min's debut, "Secondhand World," could be mistaken for one -- an easy, flowing story told in achingly evocative prose that lingers in your consciousness during idle moments, while you're waiting at a traffic light or standing in line at the market. A pretty novel is not so ambitious that it alters the reader's perception of reality in any measurable way; the story may even be familiar. Rather, it's beguiling in a simple and accessible manner, like a young woman crossing the street who might turn your head. A pretty novel offers well-drawn, vulnerable characters who resonate, and it may be shot through with sentences so perfectly told that you may find yourself flipping back through the pages to experience, again, how the words rock inside your ear and roll off your inner tongue. A pretty novel with something to say? That's an accomplishment.

"Secondhand World" is about many things: immigrant alienation, marital rifts, war, vanity, murder and guilt. But at its core, the novel -- told from the perspective of a young Korean American woman looking back on her troubled childhood -- is a meditation on the sometimes punishing nature of memory. Because sometimes the past is more vibrant and alive than the everyday grind, and the present merely secondhand.

In this way, 18-year-old Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, a.k.a. "Isa," is surrounded by ghosts. It is 1976 and Isa is narrating from her sickbed in the burn unit of an Albany hospital. She's the sole survivor of a household fire that one of her parents intentionally set -- a murder-suicide. But the ghosts were there with Isa long before her parents died. As she recalls in short, impressionistic snapshots, her childhood in suburban upstate New York was a lonely one. Isa's parents, traditional Korean immigrants, achieved a slice of the American dream -- two children; a split-level gray clapboard house; a full-time university teaching position for her father, an emotionally distant scientist; and a coveted dishwasher for her mother, a beautiful but vain woman obsessed with arranging an operation for Isa to "fix" her eyelids. Isa watches them "laying down roots to gain desperate purchase in pale, inhospitable soil." Despite the middle-class achievements, the Sohn household is emotionally vacant. Isa's parents float from one kimchi and miyeok-guk (seaweed soup) meal to another, socially isolated from their surroundings and struggling to connect not just with their adopted culture, but also with each other.

After the sudden death of Isa's 4-year-old brother, Stephen, her parents retreat even further, preoccupied with grief over the loss of their only son. The here and now is transparent to them. Their more immediate lives are their private ones, which are rich with vivid memories, inspiration and affection. Late at night, Isa's father pads downstairs in his slippers, sips whisky and stares off into nothingness, alternately haunted by the Korean War (he fought for the South) and dreaming of his beloved homeland. Isa's mother methodically prepares dinner and washes dishes, but afterward she slips out to poetry classes at the local college, where she is having an affair with her professor. Amid this fractured, hollow existence, Isa sort of grows up by accident. It's not until she uncovers her mother's affair that things ignite -- quite literally.

If all this sounds like your typical dysfunctional 1970s family, it is. More specifically, it's Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm" meets a vintage version of "Crash." The Sohn family battles blatant racism and cultural displacement, and their quiet if frigid suburban existence is studded with more universal familial problems like infidelity and the death of a child. So theirs is very much at once an immigrant story and an utterly American one.

Raw, emotionally urgent and peppered with acute detail, "Secondhand World" feels like a childhood memoir, but it's crafted with the seasoned hand of an older author who writes with insight and polish. Isa is a feisty, deeply sensitive teen struggling to make sense of the alienation she feels from both her peers and her parents. As a young child, she imagines herself a "triangle among circles, an apple among pears," and she is taunted by other children at school, who call her a "chink." In high school, she runs away with an albino boy named Hero and her best friend, Rachel, who taught her to masturbate during a sleepover. So the novel -- layered with first loves, sexual awakenings, issues of identity and independence -- is also a classic coming-of-age story.

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