The Heroic Victim
Empathy and Depravity in This Burns My Heart
This Burns My Heart
by Samuel Park
(Simon & Schuster, $25)
The tragedy of having chosen the wrong husband is not necessarily that you cannot ever have the right one; it is that however long it takes you to get that right one—and probably, this will take time, because we are in the land of novels and not of movies like, say, The Graduate—will always be time lost. In this way, this choice is a perfect tragedy, self-feeding. You can roll around in it, appreciate its contours. That's the feeling of Samuel Park's engrossing first novel, This Burns My Heart, which he has referred to as a sort of Korean Pride and Prejudice, and which bravely flirts with the fire of melodrama, even in its title.
The central woman in question is Soo-Ja Choi. "I'm a little upset with Soo-Ja at the moment," one reader posted to Park's Facebook page, presumably while mid-novel. I could relate. Soo-Ja is frustratingly duty-bound—but not entirely anachronistically. She's a Korean daughter, then wife, in the changing revolutionary Korean countryside of the middle 20th century, then in a newly capitalistic Seoul, and then in a nightmarish scene from a sparklingly chlorinated immigrant backyard in California. (Soo-Ja is based loosely on Park's own mother. Full disclosure: I worked with him briefly at a college newspaper.)
Soo-Ja serves her parents. She serves her husband's parents. She serves her daughter and the people who stay in the cheap hotel she manages. It's a life of servitude, while everyone around her calculates and claws their way out. You just want Soo-Ja to sprout the digging appendages already and join them in the dirt. And Park dangles the potential for bold choices in the form of other characters, who escape situations no more despairing than the marriage Soo-Ja was tricked into by a selfish teenager.
But Park's writing makes clear that it's not moral uprightness but empathy that keeps Soo-Ja's life in limbo for so long. It's almost as if she were the writer of her own story, keeping her from being a better liver of it. "He might have been happy, once, to have her as his captive, but over time he must have realized he was as bound as she was," Soo-Ja thinks, realizing the depths of her husband's final depraved episode. "The thing about capturing a prize fish is that everyone admires the fish, and soon forgets about the fisherman. You love the thing that makes you special, then hate it because it's the thing that makes you special." Soo-Ja is, unfortunately for her, a woman capable of her burden.
The best part of This Burns My Heart is that its resolution is not the point, not a justification of all the pages that went before but a triggering of sorrow that those pages have passed, like a replay of Soo-Ja's own dilemma. You can't reread a novel again for the first time, but you can revisit its finer points. There's a moment toward the end of the novel when Park takes an important opportunity to puncture Soo-Ja's sense of her own grandiosity, when she discovers a deception by her father. The best part of the discovery is that she wants to deceive her own daughter the same way. She probably won't—this is Soo-Ja. But she sins in her heart, and that makes all the difference.