Title: Secondhand World
Author: Katherine Min
Date Completed: 12-16
I came by this book through a circuitous route; a route that had nothing to do with the book’s author or its contents.
Because of Danny Felsenfeld (more on Mr. Felsenfeld in a future post), I stumbled onto this novel replete with both great pain and wisdom. Secondhand World is the story of Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, the American-born daughter of a Korean couple. The novel begins and ends when Isa is 18, and is largely focused on her final years of high school.
Secondhand World is about alienation and acceptance; not only the alienation we experience at the hands of the larger world – especially if we are a Korean child who does not resemble anyone else around – but the alienation that can take place within the confines of our own family.
Isa feels isolated from her parents. As a toddler, her younger brother, was killed in a senseless household accident and, through the years, her parents continue to be haunted by their loss. Isa feels that she is a poor substitute for her dead brother. A feeling eloquently expressed at the novel’s close:
“It’s a secondhand world we’re born into. What is novel to us is only so because we’re newborn, and what we cannot see, that has come before – what our parents have seen and been and done – are the hand-me-downs we begin to wear as swaddling clothes, even as we ourselves are naked. The flaw runs through us, implicating us in its imperfection even as it separates us, delivers us onto opposite sides of a chasm. It is both terribly beautiful and terribly sad, but it is, finally, the fault in the universe that gives birth to us all.”
The pain Isa experiences both inside her family and out, even the loss of her brother, are only echos of other tragedies – in her father’s past and in her present (when we first meet Isa she is a patient on a pediatric burn unit). As Isa finds life so I found Secondhand World – terribly beautiful and terribly sad.