Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee (Book Review)

I was inspired to read Native Speaker after seeing author Chang-Rae Lee’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I didn’t know his work, and wanted to become familiar with one of the books that brought him to this esteemed gallery celebrating Americans and Americana.

Native Speaker is a novel about Henry, a Korean man on the verge of separation from his non-Korean wife, Leila. The story opens with Leila going on vacation alone, leaving Henry with a stark and almost insulting list of his traits. As the story unfolds, we learn that they had a child together, and the child died. We learn that Henry’s work deals with industrial-type espionage. He infiltrates organizations to learn secrets, and then sells that information to interested parties. While his wife is away, Henry infiltrates the organization of a Korean politician in order to inform on him to an opposing candidate. Already in crisis about his wife and marriage, the job puts Henry in crisis with his heritage and identity.

The old Korean ways bleed into Henry’s life of marital non-communication and professional subterfuge. We see parallels with his father who had a seemingly unemotional relationship with his wife. Henry and his father share a strong work ethic and general lack of candor. Knowledge that he’s like his father affects Henry inwardly, but outwardly he’s a stiff as a brick.

Although the novel is beautifully written, I found it listless and I had no sympathy for the characters. I didn’t like Native Speaker even though it won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. That made me think that I wasn’t a good reader. Then I began to wonder if I was a good writer. My world started to wobble. I remembered my friend Michael Charney, writer and publisher, who recently reviewed many Pulitzer Prize novels in his blog Michael admitted freely that he didn’t like a number of the books, despite the recognition they achieved.

Writing, like any art form, has a degree of subjectivity. Maybe we can appreciate a painting, or a novel as substantial, credible, and a work of art, even though we just plain don’t like it.

Native Speaker wasn’t for me. But it solicited enough of a reaction for me to tell you why I didn’t like it, so perhaps something’s there after all.

A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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