The day Los Angeles went ablaze in 1992, the wretched verdict acquitting four LAPD officers of the there-for-the-whole-world-to-see beating of Rodney King wasn’t the sole fuel for the rage that would leave 63 people dead, thousands wounded, and many more witnesses to the fires and the tumult forever altered. There had been other cases of police abuse and miscarriages of justice—including the slaying of Latasha Harlins, who in 1991 went to a liquor deli to buy orange juice, only to be shot in the back of the head by the store’s owner, Soon Ja Du.
“The whole thing was caught on video, and Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter,” Steph Cha writes in the author’s note to her riveting new novel, Your House Will Pay. “She received no jail time.”
Cha boldly imagines what the aftermath of such an event—the violent death of a young woman, and the life of the young woman responsible for it—might look like decades later, and the results are deeply satisfying on the level of craft while appropriately disturbing to the quietude of the reader.
Without giving away more than is necessary of the plot—the secrets and heartbreaks of which have been fashioned by a writer who understands the messiness of justice and the complexity of human interaction—the story follows two families living on the outer edges of Los Angeles County. The Matthewses have left South Central for the tranquility of Palmdale; it means hellish commutes for Shawn and the other working adults in the family, but they have a house to show for their pains and a comparatively untroubled neighborhood in which to welcome back Shawn’s beloved cousin, Ray, just released from a long prison sentence. In Granada Hills, meanwhile, three of the four Parks carry out a rote, uneventful existence. Grace works with her immigrant Korean parents at their pharmacy; her sister, Miriam, lives in Silver Lake, a daunting distance from her family when measured psychically.
One of the pleasures of the book is how deftly Cha renders so many layers of Los Angeles society. The apt details—minor (characters calculating how long it will take them to drive somewhere) and major (descriptions of a home at night in the Antelope Valley)—only underscore the profound theme at hand: concerns and confusions about what it means to lead a good life, what it means to be righteous, what it means to be part of a community.
Like the finest crime fiction, Your House Will Pay uses a terrible occurrence, in this case one fraught with racist implications, to plumb the interior lives of discrete (which is not to say disparate) individuals as they navigate loyalty to family and commitment to the grind. All of this is related unsentimentally and is refreshingly depicted within two communities—those of black and Korean Angelenos—whose relationship to the city and county they call home is rarely centered as it is here with rich results.
Oscar Villalon is the managing editor of Zyzzyva. He lives in San Francisco.
• By Steph Cha
• Ecco, 320 pages, $26.99
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