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Min's fiery first novel depicts a fractured family

In her startling first novel, Korean-American writer Katherine Min gives such celebrated writers as Louise Erdrich, Zadie Smith and Amy Tan a run for their money. Exquisitely written, wrenchingly imagined, "Secondhand World" will stand your hair on end.

The whole question of Korean-American identity is central. The teenage narrator, Isadora Myung Hee Sohn -- known as Isa -- is as cranky and smart as they come. As a child she adores her beautiful mother, a transplanted Korean woman who was almost killed in a fire when she was a young girl. (Fire figures prominently in the novel.) Isa says of her mother: "For most of my life I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements." That beauty becomes a source of confusion and difficulty during Isa's adolescence.

Isa is not beautiful. Her mother wants her to have an eye operation to give her a Caucasian appearance; to wear a clothespin on her nose to re-shape it; to wear falsies for a better figure; to dress in whatever the latest cutesy fashion is. Though she adheres to some traditional Korean values, Isa's mother wants to be AMERICAN. And Isa comes to the realization that her emotionally fragile mother doesn't have much besides her beauty to help her cope with the tragedies of her life.

Isa's father, a professor, also dreams the American Dream. A severe man, he is so haunted by his experiences in the Korean War that very little tenderness is available to him as a father. He loves his wife and he loves his little boy, Steven (who is killed in a tragic accident), but Isa is convinced that neither of her parents really cares about her because she is, after all, only a girl.

"Daughters you raise for another family, a Korean saying goes. Only sons remain your own."

After Steven's death, Isa feels her isolation even more. Her mother has several breakdowns and attempts suicide. Her father withdraws into his work. Isa knows him best by his nightly insomniac wanderings in the house and by his rages at her because she can't master either of his two languages: math and Korean.

"You should have been a boy," he grumbles. Isa agrees. "I begin to feel like a girl in a fairy story," she says. "Around our split-level, a tangle of briars rises up, thorny and thick, my mother dwelling in enchanted sleep, the king distracted. And the princess in the tower, growing her hair, dreaming of escape."

On the playground Isa is reviled, called "gook" and "Chinee." But she is a plucky girl and in high school she finds a new friend, Rachel, whose warm family home becomes a refuge from the fanatically clean world of the Sohns. Isa falls in love with a fellow outcast, an albino boy named Hero. Together they go through a mutual sexual awakening. Eventually they run away together, only to be brought back by angry parents and separated from each other.

At one point, after Isa's father has hit her, she lies wounded on the floor and gazes at a crack in the ceiling which seems to her to be emblematic of her family's journey through the world. Isolation and separateness grow ever more intense.

Isa discovers that her mother is having an affair with a poet from the local college. Her mother tries to explain: "Love changes. Comes and goes. Not fixed, you know. Not like a mountain, more like ocean."

But Isa's childish rage at this betrayal has consequences. And ultimately she comes to the realization that it is not exactly that the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on the child; it is their pain, their histories that are passed on to her.

She lives, as she says, in a secondhand world.

Sally Fiedler is a well-known Buffalo poet and teacher.


Secondhand World

by Katherine Min

Knopf, 288 pp., $23

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