Chang-rae Lee’s prize winning novel Native Speakeris a well written story with unusual element combinations that made for an engrossing book. Native Speaker is a book about identity, with a main character struggling to figure out who he is as a second generation Korean-American, complicated by the fact that the character is a free-lance spy of sorts working undercover for a politician who is also consumed with identity, although for different reasons.
I’ve never read a politics/spy/immigrant novel, but Lee pulls it off with aplomb. Although there is plenty of action in the book, I enjoyed the fact that Lee kept focus on his characters and their development and unfolding. Lee’s descriptions, especially of one of the politician’s staffers and the main character’s father-in-law, were amazingly good. It’s a great skill to be able to distill a character in one unusual phrase.
Since I know some readers (and parents of readers) have concerns about content I will mention that the book contains a few instances of profanity and a few too detailed descriptions of a married couple’s love life. I know I say this over and over again, but I wish more authors would find ways to convey the meaning behind the physical aspects of relationships rather than giving us tons of details. Details mean different things to different people, and somehow always seem tawdry when written out, even when they are supposed to alert the reader to emotional undercurrents and the status of a relationship. I wish authors would find other ways to get those points across. I’m not a prude about these things, I just don’t think they ever really add to a story, and the point of a book is to tell me a story and show me something about how other people see the world.
I will now step off my soapbox.
All that aside, overall the book is great and I have put some of Lee’s other books on my list. I’d recommend Native Speaker if you like literary fiction with unusual twists and elements.