Two families, connected by a decades-old tragedy
A powerful and taut novel about racial tensions in Los Angeles, following two families — one Korean-American, one African-American — grappling with the effects of a decades-old crime
In the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager, Los Angeles is as tense as it’s been since the unrest of the early 1990s. But Grace Park and Shawn Matthews have their own problems. Grace is sheltered and largely oblivious, living in the Valley with her Korean-immigrant parents, working long hours at the family pharmacy. She’s distraught that her sister hasn’t spoken to their mother in two years, for reasons beyond Grace’s understanding. Shawn has already had enough of politics and protest after an act of violence shattered his family years ago. He just wants to be left alone to enjoy his quiet life in Palmdale.
But when another shocking crime hits LA, both the Park and Matthews families are forced to face down their history while navigating the tumult of a city on the brink of more violence.
This is the second of Steph Cha’s novels that I’ve read — the first being the author’s debut, Follow Her Home (which is also rather good). Your House Will Pay takes a look at race relations from the perspective of members from two minorities — Korean- and African-Americans. It’s sharp, often emotionally wrenching and thought-provoking. It’s also difficult to review without spoilers, but I will do my best. In short, though: I really enjoyed this novel.
The novel predominantly follows Grace Park and Shawn Matthews in the present, with occasional flashbacks to each of their pasts and that of their families. Grace and Shawn come from different worlds, and grew up in their own versions of Los Angeles. At the same time, there are certain shared experiences with the city and America that have come to inform their world-views. Each of them offers a window into different communities in the greater Los Angeles region. The two families are connected by a tragedy decades ago, an event that continues to intrude on and influence Shawn’s life and that of his family. Grace only gradually becomes aware of her family’s connection to the event, and it causes a tectonic shift in her life. (The tragedy from the 1990s is inspired by real events, as Cha explains in an Author’s Note at the end.)
The story unfolds in the shadow of continued racial and social tension in Los Angeles. As the synopsis states, Grace lives a pretty sheltered life — it doesn’t have expansive boundaries, and consists mainly of her work and family. She is frustrated with her sister’s apparent acting out and perceived affectations of woke-ness. Putting the two of them together (and the tiresome boyfriend) gives Cha the opportunity to examine the various levels and styles of engagement with contemporary issues.
Grace had been following the story since the rally, though if she was being honest, her feelings of personal outrage and sorrow had died down. She felt weirdly guilty about it, but she couldn’t force herself to keep caring about this boy she’d never met, not with any passion, not when it seemed like the rest of the world was moving on.
Shawn, meanwhile, just wants to keep his head down and not repeat past mistakes. He’s family-focused, trying to support everyone around him as best he can, picking up responsibilities when others can’t (or seemingly won’t). He is a quiet rock for the family. A surrogate father-figure for Ray’s kids, he is also attempting to keep them from making the same mistakes as his generation. All the while also keeping his sister, Ava’s memory alive and honest. With recent events in the news, he’s frustrated by the resurgence of interest in his sister’s killing, and the way it is used by others for their own agendas.
I’m not sure how far one can go into the plot of the novel without venturing dangerously into spoiler territory… Which offers quite a pickle for a reviewer who has many thoughts about the novel. The shocking crime mentioned in the synopsis is the fulcrum around which Grace and Shawn’s lives turn and change, and brings them crashing together. Not mentioned in the synopsis is that tragedy is the result of another tragedy — and therein lies the potential for spoilers. (I have no doubt that this paragraph is frustrating to read, but there we go.) There was a moment when what really happened dawned on me (shortly before the reveal), which led to an out-loud, “Oh, no…” Cha handles it very well, and it is quite the gut-punch.
Cha’s prose is excellent, and is a pleasure to read. The novel is filled with the small, natural moments and observations that make the best novels come alive — be it the mannerisms of her characters, their experiences of America and Los Angeles, or larger commentary on the state of race relations in Los Angeles and America as a whole. Her writing is great, and it pulls you through.
“They’re not on our side. They won’t protect us.”
A compelling novel, and one that doesn’t try to provide easy answers to complicated and important questions. The ending felt a bit sudden, but I’m not sure how else the novel could have been concluded. I’ll be sure to get caught up with the author’s Juniper Song series, and eagerly anticipate the author’s next new novel as well. Definitely recommended.