Yvonne Park, an elderly Korean woman is shot while closing her store just after seven o’clock in the evening. However, Yvonne Park is not the name she was born with. Jung-Ja Han is the woman’s birth name.
Yvonne changed her name to hide from an incident in which she shot and killed a young black girl back in 1991. Yvonne thought that the girl was trying to steal a bottle of milk and when she confronted her a fight broke out between them and it ended with Yvonne shooting the young girl in the back of the head as she walked away, killing her.
These are pretty much the only details we know at first, and these details are only slowly given up by Cha as the narrative unfolds. Is there a connection between the two shootings?
The narrative structure will switch perspective, with one chapter covering the dead girl’s family, predominantly from the view of her brother, Shawn, and the next chapter, the Korean family, mainly through the eyes of Grace, Yvonne’s daughter.
The narrative will also jump back into the past to help fill in gaps like a jigsaw puzzle, bringing the reader closer to what the real story is.
With this structure the reader gets to see how the shooting affects both families and that both families are targeted and harassed and how the damage passes through generations. The two families of different race are forever linked together by these five seconds of history. Grace finds it particularly difficult as she was never told about the shooting and kept in the dark by the family about the whole incident.
After an incident with a young man who works for an online news site. Grace finds her email account is inundated with hate mail. Savage ravings and racist threats. They are all from people she does not even know, a knife twist to the world of hyper social media where people can hide behind there keyboards.
Social Media in the modern world can be dangerous and vicious. Information can spread quickly regardless of whether it is true or false. Opinions can be rocketed off into cyberspace almost immediately after an event has happened. Millions of people able to vent and rave having only a fraction of the full story. A snippet of video footage. Social media becomes saturated with opinions and innuendo. And these opinions, inevitably spread like a cancerous growth. But really, don’t we have ourselves to blame? Don’t we crave these stories? Don’t these stories metastasize into monsters because of our cravings?
The police suspect that it may be a revenge shooting because of Shawn’s sister being shot by Yvonne back in 1992. Matters are not helped by the fact that Shawn’s cousin has just spent the last ten years in jail and both Shawn and his cousin used to be members of a gang called the crips. Things get worse when the Crips take credit for the shooting and Ray is arrested.
This novel is wonderful because of its confrontational nature. What would you do if your mother shot a girl in the back of the head? Would it change your perception, your love for her? What if your mother had worked her whole life to provide a decent life for you? Would you question your beliefs about your mother? Did she shoot the girl in shock after being attacked or did she do it in anger? Could you forgive somebody for shooting your mother? The novel really gets you thinking.
It also gets you thinking about our justice system and its flaws, is true justice always served? Of course not. Is the Judicial system biased against racial minorities? Do the rich get a better defence than the poor, and how can this system be changed. Justice is supposed to be equal for everybody, but it simply is not. The vital question is how do we change and improve it?
I loved this novel. It is loosely based on an event that truly happened, but the narrative that Cha creates around this event is wonderful. The characters so real and believable. The questions that you will find yourself deliberating upon finishing will stick with you. We live in an imperfect world, a world flawed in so many ways, but we must never stop trying to improve it for everybody. Great book! 4.5 Stars!
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough. Her writing has appeared in the L.A. Times, the L.A. Review of Books, and Trop Magazine. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, she lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the briliance of the title of the novel and how it has different connotations. Both families, or houses are paying in so many ways. The house reference can also be used to describe the gang related "payback". Superb.
There is a wonderful interview with Cha here - https://www.npr.org/2019/10/30/773224075/embers-of-unrest-in-early-90s-los-angeles-reignite-in-your-house-will-pay