Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Miracle Creek is a courtroom drama mystery that kicks off with several plot points whose red herring status is plainly obvious. After slogging through a false narrative stretched far longer than necessary, it’s unduly difficult to get invested in the “true” story that has been so shamelessly and artificially delayed. Author Angie Kim is a Korean immigrant and lawyer-turned-novelist, here contributing an unnecessary entry in an already overcrowded genre. One would hope she’d add her own original touch, but the closest she comes is just to use the novel as a dumping ground for her own personal diary entries about the immigrant experience. And this element is just one slice of an overloaded jumble featuring too many characters and a humdrum mystery plot, the mechanics of which are too convoluted to enjoy even remotely.
In Virginia, the Korean immigrant Yoo family runs a pseudoscientific therapeutic treatment center specializing in Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT), whereby patients sit in a sealed chamber and inhale 100% oxygen at three times the standard atmospheric pressure. In good company with snake oil, HBOT may or may not prove useful as an alternative medicine for conditions including Alzheimer’s, cancer and autism. One day during treatment, an autistic child dies in a sudden explosion of the medical machinery. The explosion may have been deliberately orchestrated by his frustrated mother, seeking to free herself from the burdensome responsibility of raising a disabled child. Or it may have been an inside job engineered by the facility’s owners, seeking an insurance payout to escape their dire financial situation. All these uninteresting possibilities and more are vetted with agonizing detail in this courtroom procedural that can’t cobble together a scrap of originality.
Many of the sentences that deliver this story read as if written by a seventh grader—the author didn’t bother to think them through, nor did an editor catch them. One section opens with the following: “The courthouse parking lot was almost empty, which wasn’t surprising given that court had adjourned hours ago.” Reread that sentence and attempt to locate its logical process. Such a half-awake use of premise-and-conclusion might just as well tell you that “The moon was in the sky, which wasn’t surprising because it was 2 AM.” One sexual encounter is so poorly executed that it becomes entertaining in its own right as a novelty. “He felt a deep welling of pressure stemming from his scrotum, building and building. He needed release. Right now.” Just ouch. By the way, the extremely organic lead-up to this sexual fury involved the girl tripping on a rock and tumbling on top of him. (Well wouldn’t you know it.) There’s one final excerpt that can’t escape mention (italics mine): “He looked into the camera, his eyes so wide that his irises looked like blue balls floating in a milky pool.” Considering that the eyes described are that of a young boy with autism, who has no logical reason to be sexualized with innuendo of blue balls and milky substances of any kind, lines like these are indisputably unintentional in their tone-deaf obliviousness.
One hang-up the novel can’t shake off is a fetish for bashing American culture for the infraction of being different. Its narrator ridicules America’s depraved need to save precious seconds by shortening lengthy terms into acronyms (such as PTSD). America’s educational system is skewered for teaching mathematical concepts at the middle school level that the Yoo family daughter covered in fourth grade back in her native Seoul. Which conveniently ignores the sacrifice of critical thinking and creativity absent in Korea’s regimented, memorize-and-regurgitate model of education. Elsewhere, the narrator jabs the tendency of American contracts to overstate the obvious throughout multiple paragraphs. How dare Americans iron everything out to prevent a sneaky lawyer from exploiting a loophole in an ambiguously worded sentence? Nonsubstantive jabs like this bill themselves as part of the long-overdue voice that’s finally here to keep the American cultural hegemony in check. But these slights fall embarrassingly short and come across as petty and insecure.
Viewpoints like these are shoehorned, without justified context, into an overarching mystery plot that operates independently of each character-driven B-plot microthread. That central plot, meanwhile, is arduously replete with uninteresting logistics, and intermittently comes to a screeching halt to flesh out the backstory of this or that character. Author Kim clearly wanted to cultivate a rich tapestry of characters, but what was intended as robust and diverse quickly grows slipshod and downright unfocused. The struggles in the narrative thread of the autistic boy and his mother feel like a retread of Jodi Picoult’s House Rules, which itself has already been done more than enough times. The random alleyways through which the author wanders read like an amalgam of random conversations the author has had with friends and acquaintances, peddled here as keen insights.
The transition from the initial set of red herrings to “factual zeitgeist B” is excruciating, and all the more frustrating once mode C shows its stubborn head. Each transition requires a tedious parsing of who said and did what and when, this character’s four possible motives, that character’s method of stealing a cell phone or acquiring cigarettes to trigger an explosion. This extensive forensic analysis makes it impossible for any characters’ personalities to breathe—not that they’d even have a big breath to take if given the space—instead settling for interruptive backstory dumps. Kim wanted to use her own experience as a trial lawyer and Korean immigrant to bring something new to this corner of genre fiction. But what results is a standard fare mystery novel covered in navelgazing ornaments. It isn’t the first or last time this will happen, and need not be worth your time or money.