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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 (94 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,263 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

88 of 93 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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Blank Slate on March 18, 2003
Format: Paperback
When this book arrived in 1995, it was hailed as a crossover success. My Asian-Am friends all felt `vindicated' by Lee's emotionally rich characters, his finely pitched all-embracing Whitmanic prose style. I've read this book a couple of times and tried to figure out why it found such a ready and willing audience. I haven't found any close readings online, so here are some notes, my close reading, my overworked accusations.
This book can be divided into roughly two halves. The first centers around our narrator's, Henry Park's father. His father speaks in a mangled pidgeon, won't let his son ask him about his work, hires a `replacement' when the mother dies. He is incapable of showing himself as vulnerable; when he is robbed and pistol whipped at the grocery, he comes home and locks the door to his room, so that neither his wife nor son can see him or talk to him. Henry learns from his father to hide his emotions, which comes across in his relationship to Lelia, the WASPy Bostonian he has made his wife.
The second half closes in on Henry's relationship to John Kwang, a Korean Councilman from Queens who he is assigned to by the spy agency he works for (founded by another creepy father figure, the all-American Dennis Hoagland). Kwang is everything Henry's father is not, he embraces black folks and takes it upon himself to heal the tensions between African-Americans and Koreans in the city. He is "effortlessly Korean, effortlessly American," not the embarrasingly accented provisional citizen that Henry's father embodies. Henry infiltrates Kwang's political organization so thoroughly that Kwang tells him everything, and according to Henry "shows him his true face." Henry calls him his necessary invention, a clue that Henry is not really a spy but...
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