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Miracle Creek

Review

Miracle Creek

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of courtroom dramas, either on film or television or in books. So I went into Angie Kim’s debut novel, MIRACLE CREEK, with a fair amount of skepticism, since nearly half of it plays out in a courtroom setting. But, as I suspect most readers will be, I was immediately drawn in by Kim’s vivid, horrifying opening chapter, building a tension that doesn’t let up until the book’s final pages.

The novel opens in rural Virginia, where the Yoo family --- recent immigrants from Korea --- have built a modestly successful business providing hyperbaric oxygenation services for patients coping with infertility, cerebral palsy and especially autism. The controversial treatment, which essentially involves patients entering an above-ground submarine and breathing pure oxygen for up to an hour, is supposed to be safe, provided that basic ground rules are followed scrupulously. But, at the opening of the story, we watch as something goes horribly wrong, and a fire engulfs the hyperbaric chamber housing the Yoos’ patients, killing two of them and gravely wounding Pak Yoo and his teenage daughter, Mary.

"Kim effectively moves her narrative back and forth between courtroom testimony and flashback scenes that will reward careful readers who will spot inconsistencies, omissions and outright falsehoods as the tangle of motives and opportunities becomes ever more twisted."

The courtroom scenes play out a year later, as Elizabeth --- the mother of Henry, an eight-year-old boy with autism who was one of the fire’s victims --- is standing trial for murder. All the evidence seems to point to her, an outwardly tireless mother who has gone to great lengths to find a treatment or even a cure for Henry’s autism. This hypothesis is ghastly, of course, but Elizabeth exhibits few outward signs of remorse, and her behavior on that tragic day (not to mention her internet search history of researching how external fires can destroy hyperbaric chambers) is suspicious in the extreme. But as each new witness comes to the stand, more questions arise --- and it soon becomes apparent that no one who was at Miracle Creek that day is entirely without blame.

Kim effectively moves her narrative back and forth between courtroom testimony and flashback scenes that will reward careful readers who will spot inconsistencies, omissions and outright falsehoods as the tangle of motives and opportunities becomes ever more twisted. She knows how to build a suspenseful courtroom thriller, but just as importantly, MIRACLE CREEK offers a thoughtful exploration of numerous themes that will resonate well outside the murder plot. She sympathetically traces the interpersonal dramas within the Yoo family, for example, and how their immigration journey intersects with issues of sexism, diminishment of self-worth, and stigmatization of those for whom English is not a first language.

The author also powerfully, and at times painfully, interrogates the inner lives of women who are the primary caregivers for children with chronic, debilitating medical conditions. When one of them admits to another, in hushed tones, that at times she has fantasized about her son’s death, imagining what it would be like to not have to care for him 24/7, surely more than one parent reading MIRACLE CREEK will feel an uncomfortable spark of recognition --- whether or not their kids have special needs.

Even as the courtroom plot unspools, Kim also encourages readers to look at the uncomfortable truths that might remain unspoken or barely whispered, as she lays bare her characters’ deepest vulnerabilities and darkest moments.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 26, 2019

Miracle Creek
by Angie Kim

  • Publication Date: April 16, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
  • ISBN-10: 0374156026
  • ISBN-13: 9780374156022