One page into Angie Kim’s debut novel, “Miracle Creek,” and I was already reaching for my phone to Google “hyperbaric oxygen therapy” (also known as HBOT). The idea of exposing people to high levels of oxygen in a pressurized, submarine-like chamber as a form of medical treatment seemed outlandish, like something out of a science fiction novel, but HBOT is indeed real. Long used in hospital settings to treat carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness, HBOT is now offered in many private facilities as an experimental, off-label treatment for a wide range of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, infertility and depression. (Kim recently published an essay in Vogue about her son undergoing 40 sessions of HBOT for ulcerative colitis.)
“Miracle Creek” opens with a fatal explosion at a small HBOT facility in rural Virginia, owned and operated by Korean immigrants, Pak Yoo and his wife, Young. On an unusually eventful day marked by protests and a power outage, a fire breaks out near the oxygen tanks during a treatment session, or “dive.” Sealed inside the chamber are four patients and their caregivers. Two of them — Henry, an 8-year-old patient, and Kitt, the parent of another young patient — die in the fire. Investigators are quick to rule the case an arson. At first, Pak Yoo is the primary suspect, but police eventually clear him due to his strong alibi and “overwhelming evidence” implicating another person — Elizabeth Ward, Henry’s mother.
At first glance, the case against Elizabeth is as airtight as the chamber she used to climb into twice daily with Henry, who suffered from “OCD, ADHD, sensory and autism spectrum disorders, [and] anxiety.” Elizabeth, who was known as a “helicoptering” single parent, suspiciously opted out of the dive on the night of the fire and asked Kitt to look after her son in the chamber — something she had never done before. Police later found a note in her handwriting that read: “I can’t do this anymore; I need my life back; It needs to end TODAY!!” And perhaps most damning, another patient once overheard Elizabeth tell Kitt, “I’d love to lie around and eat bonbons all day instead of taking care of Henry.”
The novel unfolds over four days of trial testimony, and each chapter follows different characters who were present on the night of the explosion, including Elizabeth; Pak and Young Yoo and their teenage daughter, Mary; a doctor named Matt who was undergoing HBOT for infertility and his Korean American wife, Janine; and Teresa, who survived the explosion with her daughter Rosa. Because of the shifts in omniscience, it quickly becomes clear that all of these characters are either withholding information or lying about something they believe will have no effect on the trial’s outcome.
Kim’s real-life experience as a former litigator shines throughout the courtroom scenes. Her sharply drawn prosecutor hammers away at the evidence of Elizabeth’s guilt, while her defense attorney offers up alternative explanations for how the fire started. While the courtroom scenes and plot pyrotechnics are sure to delight readers of legal thrillers and mysteries, at its heart, “Miracle Creek” is a deeply moving story about parents and the lengths they will go for their children. Several characters reflect on the challenges of caring for special-needs children with remarkable, occasionally brutal, honesty. According to Teresa, “Having a special-needs child didn’t just change you; it transmuted you, transported you to a parallel world with an altered gravitational axis.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth sits at the defense table, forced to recall how Henry’s treatments and medical needs overtook both their lives, causing her to resent the very same son she worked so hard to “cure.” And yet she never allowed herself to feel any joy about his progress, not even when Henry’s doctors proclaimed that he no longer fell within the autism spectrum. To Elizabeth, “not being autistic was not the same as being normal,” although many of the parents in her autism support groups would have given anything for a similar diagnosis.
The Yoos, who simmer with guilt on the sidelines of the trial, are another example of the extreme sacrifices parents make for their children, despite the cost. Young immigrated to Baltimore with their daughter, Mary, working day and night behind a bulletproof window in a grocery store, while Pak became a “wild goose father,” a term for men who remain in Korea while their wives and children move to the United States in search of better educational opportunities. Reunited as a family four years later, the Yoos find themselves in Miracle Creek, a town full of “politely unfriendly” neighbors, each pining for what they lost. Like many first-generation immigrants, Pak feels “the shame of becoming less proficient, less adult, than his own child,” while Young feels increasingly estranged from her daughter, who is contemptuous of her for continuing to play the role of the submissive Korean wife and not standing up to Pak about the move to America.
Some may find the novel’s conclusion overly reliant on memories and secrets jarred loose at just the right time. But more likely, readers will be riveted by the book’s genre-bending structure and superb pace. “Miracle Creek” is a stunning debut about parents, children and the unwavering hope of a better life, even when all hope seems lost.
Jung Yun, author of the novel “Shelter,” is an assistant professor of English at George Washington University.
By Angie Kim
Sarah Crichton. 368 pp. $27