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Native Speaker Paperback – March 1, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

Korean-American Henry Park is "surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy ..." or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. As a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both -- and belongs to neither.

From Publishers Weekly

Espionage acts as a metaphor for the uneasy relationship of Amerasians to American society in this eloquent, thought-provoking tale of a young Korean-American's struggle to conjoin the fragments of his personality in culturally diverse New York City. Raised in a family and culture valuing careful control of emotions and appearances, narrator Henry Park, son of a successful Korean-American grocer, works as an undercover operative for a vaguely sinister private intelligence agency. He and his "American wife," Lelia, are estranged, partly as a result of Henry's stoical way of coping with the recent death of their young son. Henry is also having trouble at work, becoming emotionally attached to the people he should be investigating. Ruminating on his upbringing, he traces the path that has led to his present sorrow; as he infiltrates the staff of a popular Korean-American city councilman, he discovers the broader, societal context of the issues he has been grappling with personally. Writing in a precise yet freewheeling prose that takes us deep into Henry's head, first-novelist Lee packs this story, whose intrigue is well measured and compelling, with insights into both current political events and timeless questions of love, culture, family bonds and identity. This is an auspicious debut for Riverhead Books, Putnam's new division. First serial to Granta; QPB selection; audio rights to Brilliance; author tour.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 349 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (March 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573225312
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573225311
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #41,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Chang-Rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-Rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton university.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

91 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Michael K. McKeon on March 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
If you read a great deal, you recognize that only a few books are truly profound and will be regarded as noteworthy among those written in a particular era. Having just finished "Native Speaker" I was both moved, and extremely impressed. This is clearly one of the distinguished books of this generation.
Chang Rae Lee is clearly a man of acute depth and insights, and he eloquently represents distinctly different cultures, and the angst, disillusionment, and metamorphisis arising from survival that affects immigrants. He also probes fundamental issues of family, loyalty, betrayal, and the question of what constitutes success. While he employs Korean, and Korean American prototypes, his themes and issues are fundamentally human, but perhaps distinctly American.
Furthermore, Lee is a superb wordsmith and a beautiful writer, with a masterful command of the English language, which he skillfully and artistically, employs to convey his complex tale and profound concepts.
I was motivated to read this book when I read that this was the book that had been recommended by many as that which diverse, fractious, and iconoclastic NYC should claim as it's own in the trend for each of the nation's cities to focus on a book to read. However, this is an important book for all Americans, as it trully speaks to the American experience. I noted one review compared it to Ellison's "Invisible Man". While I think that it stands alone, if I were to compare it with other American classics they would instead be Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and Richard Wright's "Native Son". I am very pleased that I chose to read this book; it is noble, touching, and important.
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By M. T. Guzman on April 2, 2001
Format: Paperback
Henry Park, the son of a Korean grocer who lives in New York, is deserted suddenly by his Caucasian American wife. Reflecting back on his life and and the events that lead him to this situation, he considers the way deceipt over his vocation has clouded his marriage. He reviews how his life had been when his dad was alive, when his son was alive, and the lack of understanding by his wife of his Korean culture.
A pervading sense of something having gone wrong opens this book. The search for its cause and more details is the powerful driving force behind this intriguing first novel. Its finest characteristic, however, is the way in which the author expresses what it feels like to be an ethnic Korean growing up in America---the alienation, the anguish, the longing to be a necessary part of the wider culture. It addresses the dichotomy of two divergent cultures that must be embraced by the child of an American immigrant who strives to improve his station in life, the tension that exists between Asians and non-Asians who find themselves living and working side by side, and the intergenerational clash that often occurs between the immigrant generation and its children. NATIVE SPEAKER is an absorbing story and a welcome addition to any growing collection of Asian-American literature.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Min Jae Suh on May 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
This novel depicts the problems involving alienation, isolation, and self-identity crisis that the immigrants face as the minority and outsiders in the American society. This novel takes the structure of detective fiction, developing a story of a spy who investigates an ambitious politician. Its main action concerns an amazingly charismatic New York City councilman, John Kwang, the idol of thousands of immigrant voters in his home district of Queens. Someone wants to see him go down, and it is Henry's job to provide the dirty laundry. Also this story of trust and betrayal is connected together with other, more delicate threads: his troubled relationship with his traditional Korean father, his troubled marriage to his American wife? His Confucian inability to express live to either of them except through silence. Beautifully written and intriguingly plotted, the novel interweaves politics, love, family, and loss as Park starts to make sense of the rhythm of his life. As he does, his experiences illuminate the many-layered immigrant experience in general, and the Asian immigrant experience in particular, in a way that many readers will understand and appreciate. Through the life of Henry Park, the author exposes the alienation and isolation that many immigrants and their children faces from the American society. Also he depicts the conflicts between 1st generation immigrants and 2nd generation America-born children caused from the cultural differences and the incompatible perspectives toward their lives. Through the motif of a spy, the author successfully creates feeling of uncertainty of identity and place from a point view of a perpetual outcast looking at American culture from a distance.Read more ›
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Ken Fordyce on June 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
I picked up a copy of this book after reading rave reviews in England about his second novel, A Gesture Life. I thought I'd read Native Speaker first. I was not disappointed. I know the comparison to Kazuo Ishiguro has been made a thousand times but stylistically it has to be said that they do share a calm, measured prose which gives the reader a strong path through a jungle of emotions, memories and misunderstandings. Also, like the narrators of Ishiguro's first three novels, Lee's narrator here does not seem to see all that we as the reader can see, he does not always read the actions of those around him as we might. The narrator, a Korean-American, has a lot on his plate. He is working as a private detective whilst coming to terms with the death of his child and trying to save his marriage to a white American. I personally learnt a lot about the Korean-American community in New York from this novel. Obviously I cannot say how accurate it is and other reviewers of this book have questioned its accuracy. However, it opened my eyes to a side of the city which no film or book has ever told me about. Again, like Ishiguro's books, you come out at the other end feeling a bit hazy, not quite sure what to make of it. The only reason I gave this four stars instead of five is that I found it quite hard-going at times. The prose does not run quite as smoothly as Ishiguro's. Having said that I will certainly read his second novel and would recommend this to people looking for a new writer with new perspectives.
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