Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Published by Sarah Crichton Books on April 16th, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller
“Or perhaps the newspapers were right. Perhaps Elizabeth had been desperate to get rid of her son, and now that he was dead, she finally had a measure of peace. Perhaps she had been a monster all along.”
This book wasn’t even on my radar until I saw a bunch of bookstagrammers talk about it. I initially had hoped to read this during Asian Heritage Month for #AsianReadathon, but sadly couldn’t get to it. I get nervous reading books that are hyped online, but I just had a good feeling about this one.
In Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment centre with a 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 the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night. Who or what caused the explosion? Was it Elizabeth, the mother of one of the patients? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment?
I liked this book a lot — enough to give it 4 out of 5 bubble teas — but I didn’t fall in love with it quite like bookstagram did. I think it’s a solid debut from an author that’s a fascinating courtroom drama. This isn’t your typical Ruth Ware thriller mystery. It’s perhaps a murder mystery, but it’s really a powerful character study that discusses immigration, parenthood, grief, disability, caregiving, and survival.
It’s a difficult book to read. Kim brings to the forefront such difficult topics and ones that people have such strong opinions about. I had never read a book that thoroughly explored what it meant to be a parent of a child with autism. There’s such a sensitivity around how to parent children in general, but the way these women do anything and try everything to make their children’s lives easier is commendable and heartbreaking.
I found it so interesting when Kim wrote about the dynamic between the “divers.” Kit and Elizabeth obviously forged a friendship through their shared journey of being mothers to children with autism. But you could see the friendship wane under pressure, judgment, and jealousy. It broke my heart when Kit couldn’t understand why Elizabeth and Henry would continue HBOT treatments when Henry was seemingly “cured.” And she didn’t know that Elizabeth just wanted to be around people who understood what the other was going through. She craved that companionship.
I‘ve read enough books by now about the language and cultural barriers for immigrants. But it had never been in the context of a courtroom drama. I had also never really read a book that examined the “goose father” concept. Pak and Young are forced apart when Young and their daughter Mary first came to the United States without Pak. He continued to work in Korea to make enough money for him to join them. And once he did, they struggled with the dismissal of their business as silly “Eastern medicine.”
I was especially moved by Kim’s description of Pak’s struggle with the language barrier. He’s intelligent and well-spoken in Korean, but suffers the indignity of appearing unintelligent in his accented English:
“Pak Yoo was a different person in English than in Korean. In a way, he supposed, it was inevitable for immigrants to become child versions of themselves, stripped of their verbal fluency and, with it, a layer of their competence and maturity.”
Another interesting topic Kim brings up is the “festishization” of Asian women. It’s something that I’ve had long discussions about with friends, but had never seen it before in fiction. Janine is shown as struggling with her feelings about it. Why do men who have a preference for brunettes or redheads never get accused of having a “fetish?” But yet it’s a huge deal when they happen to date a couple Asian women? Why are Asian women portrayed as something perverse?
I had a good laugh when Janine was exasperated when she received a wok as a gift from someone just because she was Asian. Or when she lamented that people would recommend other couples to hang out with because they were Asian too.
I sometimes really struggle with multiple POV books. I find it distracting and it’s hard to keep up with the plot that way. But when it’s done well, like in Miracle Creek, it really adds another layer to the story. The third person narration allows for the mystery to play out beautifully. Each piece of the puzzles comes together piece by piece through each character.
Kim portrays each character (even the peripheral ones) as fleshed out and flawed. Nobody is a caricature villain or hero. At every turn, each person is driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice to survive. And that means they make some morally questionable decisions, but it made the book just that much more captivating.
The only reason why this is not a 5 bubble tea read for me is because I was disappointed by the ending. I wish there had been more exploration into the aftermath of the trial. I didn’t want just a one-liner about Janine and Matt. And I felt like there could’ve been more done with the shift in the Yoo family dynamic.
This won’t be a book for everyone. I already know the courtroom drama backdrop won’t appeal to certain readers. The way the book brings up “controversial” topics will also make people uncomfortable. But if you’re looking for an in depth character study then this is the book for you.