Chinhominey's Secret

by Nancy Kim

Published by Bridge Works

224 pages, 1999


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The Sins of the Grandmother

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Chinhominey has more than one secret. In fact, she's kept so many throughout her long life that it's gotten difficult to remember where secrets end and the truth begins. And they've been costly secrets. They've cost her both the physical closeness of her family -- they've moved half way across the planet to put miles between them -- as well as the emotional ties that would bring comfort even at a distance. She thinks a great deal about this throughout Chinhominey's Secret. She thinks about it but seems helpless to put right the wrongs of so many years.

Chinhominey means "paternal grandmother" in Korean. Or, as author Nancy Kim explains in a brief glossary, this romantization for the correct Korean word is "intended to reflect the Americanized way it would be pronounced," by her grandoffspring. In this case, two very different but equally likable sisters named Grace and Christina. But, when she comes from Korea to visit for the first time in over two decades, Chinhominey doesn't quite know what to make of them.

Chinhominey sniffs contemptuously and takes another sip of coffee.

"What about your children?"

"Fine, fine. You saw how they are," Myung Hee says, using a smile to dilute the defensiveness of her tone.

"I wouldn't have recognized them. They have no manners. They are like Americans."

"They are Americans," Myung Hee says firmly.

"They still have Korean faces. They will always have Korean faces."

"Those are American faces, too," Myung Hee says, struggling to keep her expression pleasant. Her left eye twitches with the effort.

While the Chois seem the very picture of the successful immigrant family in the new world, there is much bubbling just beneath the surface. Myung Hee and her husband suffer from almost terminal ennui. The marriage seems dead to both of them, though neither can conceive of a way to either terminate or rectify the situation.

Elder daughter Christina is the perfect one. Now 24, she's always been the favored child. She's beautiful, bright and sunny. Her relationship with a doctor seems flawless. Yet she struggles with private doubts and insecurities and when her boyfriend becomes abusive she tries not to see the imperfection that's been visited on her life.

Christina's younger sister Grace is the ill-favored one. She doesn't possess her sister's physical beauty or -- despite her hopeful name -- her grace. What neither sister knows is that both girl's futures were foretold before they were born. The fortune teller told Chinhominey that her son's marriage would end in disaster and that the younger daughter -- Grace -- would die at an early age, the child's fate linked to her grandmother's. This prophecy and other earlier ones are all linked to Chinhominey's secrets, and they are prophecies that have colored the Choi's lives, in both Korea and the United States.

It's an engaging story, well told. Kim has a solid handle on the intricate dance that families can spend their lives in, as well as the ability to hold her reader through her character's machinations. It's difficult not to care about the Choi family. Not to feel empathy for the years they've spent -- wasted -- in misunderstandings.

Appropriately, since she is the title character, Chinhominey is, in many ways, the most important player. She is the character that the rest of the book pivots around. After many years spent in anger and isolation from her family, she's ready to reconsider and reach out. Some of these moves late in life bring back a shadow of Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. Chinhominey has not always been generous of heart or spirit and her choices have shaped her family's lives. Unlike Hagar, however, Chinhominey is ready to think about where she might have mistepped in her life. Ready, in fact, to try and rebuild a couple of bridges.

She has been so lonely. The loneliness ticked away inside her, a constant reminder of the emptiness in her life. A loneliness that wasn't like the sharp longing she felt when she was a girl and her mother left her alone or when she was a young bride and her husband went away on business. The loneliness of her youth had been painful but full of life, full of desire. The loneliness she feels in old age is empty, a soft throbbing, a resignation. It is a hollow feeling that echoes inside her, makes her feel as though she were made of wood, or stone, or nothing at all.

Chinhominey's Secret is a good and compelling read that, nonetheless, could have been so much richer. There is room here for more depth in the characterizations. In fact, it's too slender a volume: there's room for more story. There's hope though: Chinhominey's Secret is a first novel. Perhaps a completed first will give Kim the confidence to take her next work even further. | August 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.