A Gesture Life

Chang-Rae Lee, Author Riverhead Books $23.95 (356p) ISBN 978-1-57322-146-7
Franklin Hata, born to Korean parents, raised by an adoptive family in Japan and settled in America, is the narrator of Lee's quietly stunning second novel. Like his first, the Hemingway/PEN award-winning Native Speaker, it is a resonant story of an outsider striving to become part of an alien culture. Beloved in the small, wealthy suburban New York community where for more than 30 years he ran a surgical supply store, ""Doc"" Hata lives a stringently circumspect life designed to afford him privacy and respect. Never married, he adopts a young girl of mixed parentage from a Japanese orphanage. He raises Sunny with strict adherence to impeccable standards, and is bewildered when she spurns his gifts and rejects his code of values. He is tormented, moreover, by memories of a gradually revealed event in his past, when he was a paramedical officer serving in the Japanese army in Burma. Then known as Ziro Kurohata, he tries to mask his Korean origins by behaving with inculcated respect for authority. But when five young Korean women arrive to service the soldiers as ""comfort girls,"" his emotions betray him. He falls in love with one of them, and in a tentative attempt to behave heroically, he precipitates tragedy. Lee reveals these crucial events gradually in flashback, meanwhile also slowly completing his portrait of Hata as a decorous model citizen. After the war Hata determines never again to give way to emotion, so he loses an opportunity to enjoy love with a local widow, to give succor to another woman he admires, whose son is dying, and to establish real relationshops with others in the town of Bedley Run. Moreover, Sunny rebels against his stern standards, dropping out of high school and leaving town with a drug dealer. ""You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness,"" she tells him. ""You burden with your generosity."" Finally, Hata is able to admit that both his exemplary behavior and his emotional reserve have been an attempt to distance himself from the dishonor of his wartime experiences. Meanwhile, he has quietly betrayed others in spite of his vow never to do so again. This ironic realization finally takes a physical toll, but opens his heart to an act of redemption. In an elegantly controlled narrative, Lee makes Hata's tortuous dilemma agonizingly real. While the prose is measured and moves to the pace of Hata's introspection, there is a rising tide of suspense that builds to two breathtaking climaxes--one at the army camp and the other in the present. Lee subtly contrasts the nuances of cultural conditioning in Japanese society and in Hata's virtual reincarnation as an American citizen, all the while delivering a haunting message about the penalties one pays for such a metamorphosis. His psychologically astute depiction of Hata's inner life is reinforced by the presence in the plot of other characters who live valiantly despite troubled lives. This is a wise, humane, fully rounded story, deeply but unsentimentally moving, and permeated with insights about the nature of human relationships. If Lee's first novel was an impressive debut, this one marks the solid establishment of a stellar literary career. Author tour. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
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FORMATS
Paperback - 356 pages - 978-1-57322-828-2
Hardcover - 480 pages - 978-1-58724-287-8
Hardcover - 368 pages - 978-1-86207-401-9
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