Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun

This is a book detailing how the sins of a father and mother are visited upon a young Korean-American girl. Joon’s father is an abusive alcoholic; her mother suffers from a mental disorder of some type. These damaged adults abuse and abandon Joon, each in their own way. The result is a young girl starved for love, alone, and wandering the streets.

When the book opens, Joon is in a shelter for homeless girls. After another resident takes Joon’s shoes, Knowledge, streetwise, tough, and lesbian, forces their return to Joon. A friendship is born. Knowledge convinces Joon to “escape” from the shelter, though they are free to leave whenever they want. In leaving, they lose their spot. Knowledge treats it like a jail break, creating a diversion so Joon can run for it. A boy interested in Joon meets them out on the cold streets and they head off for mischief.

And with the snow hitting my eyes, my fingers almost numb, I suddenly felt like one of those people who walked the streets as if something good were waiting for them.

Joon is slow to learn from her mistakes. Each decision seems to deteriorate from the last as the pages flow by. She has a relationship with a grown man who works as a security guard at a skating rink.

I fell in love with him because he had brown eyes that always looked wet.

Joon is still in her early teens. The relationship does not end well.

There is some difficulty in writing from the perspective of an emotionally damaged, poorly schooled, homeless girl. I recognize that. Despite the difficulty, Mun produces some excellent scenes. For instance, Joon tags an old man as her thwarted savior.

But the black man – he hadn’t budged. He was still facing me. Even his mop hadn’t moved. That’s when I knew he was God. He’d come for me but the baby had gotten in the way.

She accepts this setback as she accepts most of her setbacks. She remains hopeful in the face of her grim reality. When she looks for God again, he isn’t there:

God didn’t show that day, but one of his angels did. She was maybe five years old with lemony hair, and she sat alone, three seats to my right. That was how I knew she was special. Five-year-olds in Sunday dresses didn’t sit in the back of the bus by themselves. That, and she held in her hands an egg timer, the kind that looked like a mini sundial.

The angel is no more helpful than God himself. The small gems Mun produces, however, are too few and too loosely linked. Mun takes a few easy and unnecessary political punches, like this one at abortion protestors:

The protestors had a tall wastebasket filled with eggs. They handed them out to everyone on the street, except the homeless.

Despite the often wonderfully timed humor and twists, these missteps mark Mun as a rookie novelist. Miles From Nowhere feels like a first book, but from an author with promise.

She has only produced a good novel, certainly not a great one. The narrative arc feels more like that of a misery memoir than a novel. In addition, though often conceived nicely, too many of the scenes feel written rather than lived. I realize this statement is somewhat counterintuitive given my last statement and that this is a largely autobiographical novel. The statement is true though. Despite the emotional pull of the subject matter, I had some trouble becoming fully invested. In my view, it read like a story, rather than like a life. I did not fully enter Joon’s world because I was never fully convinced the world was real. It was not a book in which I could lose myself, despite some touching humor, some nice lines, and a little daring.

The book is enjoyable and worth reading, but never coalesces into a fully accomplished work of art.

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3 Responses to Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun

  1. kimbofo says:

    I agree with your review. I read this a year or so ago, and thought it was an impressive debut but only gave it three stars out of five. I described it as a “rather depressing coming-of-age story that covers already well trodden ground”.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kim,

    Yours is an excellent summary. I was remiss in not checking your archives, but I will now. I am happy my assessment echoed that of someone whose literary opinions I respect.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Kerry

  3. […] HW: “The book is enjoyable and worth reading, but never coalesces into a fully accomplished work of art.” […]

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