Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review of Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (2019, Faber and Faber)

1991, two weeks after the Rodney King beating ignites race riots in Los Angeles, 16 year old Ava Matthews is shot dead in a Korean convenience store after tussling with the pregnant owner who thought she was trying to steal a quart of milk. Jung-Ja Han is subsequently cleared of murder and freed, but by then war has been declared on Korean communities by African-Americans, who loot and burn down their stores. 27 years later, the city is dealing with another unarmed, young black man shot dead by police, and Ava’s cousin, Ray, leaves prison after a ten year sentence for attempted armed robbery. Shawn, Ava’s brother, and his family are waiting for him hoping he can go straight this time. Grace Park is disturbed by the continued racial tensions in the city, but lives a quiet life, residing with her parents and working as a pharmacist in their store. Her world though is about to be turned upside down. When leaving the store together one evening, her mother is shot, and while she is in surgery Grace learns about her past. As the police investigate the shooting, Shawn finds himself grappling with a crime that still haunts his family, and Grace with the attempt on her mother’s life and a past crime she knew nothing about.

Your House Will Pay follows two families still living with the after-effects of a crime committed in the shadow of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The two main characters are Grace Park, who wasn’t yet born at the time teenager Ava Matthews was shot dead by Jung-Ja Han for seemingly stealing a quart of milk, and Shawn Matthews, Ava’s young brother, who was in the store at the time. Shawn was already hanging round the fringes of a gang and his sister’s death tipped him into that life and prison until he found his feet and went straight. Grace grew up not knowing about her mother’s crime and how she walked free from court. Now her mother has been shot and Shawn and Grace find themselves grappling with the consequences. Cha sympathetically charts the pain, hurt and confusion in both families, while nicely contextualising the story in relation to the race riots and police brutality in 1991 and tensions between the African American and Korean communities, and the continued systemic institutional racism and Black Lives Matter in the present day. The character development is excellent, as is the portrayal of both families and their internal tensions and struggles. The plot is well-paced and balanced, with a well-judged thread of tension and intrigue running throughout. The only thing that seemed a little off was the ending, which felt curtailed and somewhat open-ended. Nonetheless, it is a powerful, thoughtful and thought-provoking read about racial tension, policing and justice in contemporary America.

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