When certain novels get popular, there’s a risk that they can be overhyped to the point that it might ruin their appeal. Once readers finally have a chance to read about the titles in question, they might ask, “What did people see in this book?”
Miracle Creek – the debut novel of Angie Kim – was popular when it first came out. I remember looking at the May 2019 issue of Book Pages magazine and seeing the book cover on it. That was how I knew it made it. And given the plot, I knew I had to read it. And reader, the hype was worth it.
Miracle Creek takes place over a course of four days and follows a murder trial after a hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) chamber explodes and kills two people including an autistic child in a small town in Virginia. A showdown unfolds among various characters who may or may not be keeping secrets in regards to what happened.
It’s a pure coincidence that I posted this review the week after the movie version of Where the Crawdads Sing – another book that received a lot of hype upon its release. Miracle Creek has a lot of things going for it as I will explain in this evaluation, which certainly appeals to a wide range of readers, but there’s a big difference between the two novels. While Where the Crawdads Sing contains a lot of familiar tropes, it doesn’t do anything new with them, which is not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, Miracle Creek brings nuance to its themes, which have more of a long-lasting impact.
The novel is told through 7 characters. Normally, I would think that there’s way too many perspectives because how can one remember who’s saying what? Fortunately, this book doesn’t have that problem. Each one of them is layered, has their own motives and conflicts, and is sympathetic (to some degree), but not completely innocent when it comes to the crime. In other words, although all of them have good intentions, they are unreliable as narrators. For instance, Elizabeth is the mother of Henry – the dead autistic child, and she’s on trial for the murders. She wanted her son to be normal and would go to great lengths to ensure that he could behave like neurotypical children. However, what she does can be seen as child abuse like making him drink bleach. Did she really start the fire? One will have to read the book to find out. I didn’t like her because of what she does to Henry, but she has a realization that how he acts is not always because of his diagnosis. He’s simply being a kid. Overall, I can easily see where she’s coming from. And this is coming from someone who has a complicated relationship with the spectrum.
In addition, it helps that they interact with the other characters constantly. These relationships inadvertently play several roles in the explosion. For example, Matt – a doctor who was getting HBOT for his infertility – was sharing cigarettes with the teenaged Mary and doing “other things” with her. When his wife Janine finds out about it, she confronts Mary by calling her nasty names and throwing a cigarette pack and some matches at her. Did this lead to the fire? One will have to read the novel to find out. In addition, prior to the incident, Elizabeth and Theresa – a mother of a daughter with cerebral palsy – talked about the trials and tribulations of having special needs children and how sometimes they think of what would have happened if their children didn’t exist. They would be relieved since they would have time for themselves. Yet, at the same time, they always felt guilty for thinking that because of the devastation. Did this play into the fire? For the last time, read the book!
Along with disability and taking care of special needs children, Miracle Creek also deals with immigration, the Asian-American experience, how far people are willing to go to aid and protect their families. Kim handles these themes well, for she explores them pretty deeply. The Yoo family came from Seoul, South Korea years prior to the explosion for a better life. Young and Mary came to America first, while Young’s husband Pak stayed behind for sometime to raise some more money for Mary’s education. Because of this, he’s called a “goose father” (a common expression in South Korea used for fathers who stay behind while their families are in an English-speaking country). At the same time, Young had to work long hours at the store their host family owned, and as a result, she didn’t see her daughter all that often. This resulted in a strained relationship between them.
For the Asian-American experience, Janine reflects on how she wanted to become a doctor just to spite her family who wanted her brother to train as one. She also comments on how her family reacted to her dating a white guy. At one point, she ruminates about how there’s an Asian fetish, but not a blond one. I personally never thought about that until now. Meanwhile, when Young confronts Pak about his involvement with the explosion, he wants to keep silent on the new details, so they can get the insurance money for Mary’s college funds. Refusing to stand by this any longer, Young insists on telling their lawyer, so they wouldn’t hold the truth in anymore. Throughout the book, Young is a dutiful and obedient wife and loves her family despite the strains, but once she discovers the truth, she realizes that she must speak up even at the expense of said family.
Since this book is a suspense novel, I have to talk about the twists and turns. There were so many of them, especially in the second half. A lot of these occur at the very end of the chapters to leave readers hanging. It’s like the revelation on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit occurring right before the commercial break. Cheesy as it may sound, but they worked because they were out of left field. For example, when Young finds some cigarettes in the barn by their house. She questions this, for Pak promised her that he quitted smoking. And then, she finds a pamphlet containing apartment listings in Seoul dated a week prior to the explosion. I was like, “What?????”
Kim also handles the trial scenes effectively as she explores the ins and outs of how one is conducted throughout this book. This makes sense as she is a former trial lawyer. In the novel, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor prefer spinning the truth to adhere to their narratives that they initially conducted as opposed to exposing the actual stories as they come out. These scenes contain a lot of twists and turns that I didn’t see coming for the most part. This would make John Grisham proud.
Overall, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is worth the read. It’s a wonderful mystery/suspense novel about a murder trial involving a HBOT explosion, and it explores a variety of characters and themes with plenty of depth as well as their involvement with the incident. This nuance along with the twists and turns got me hooked from start to finish. I would recommend it to those who love books involving trials, the Asian-American experience, caring for disabled loved ones, and slow burner mysteries like Where the Crawdads Sing. I get why it became popular, and it deserves to be remembered.
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