I bought A Step from Heaven by An Na for only RM8 at Popular Bookstore in Miri recently. I have just finished reading it and having enjoyed the book, I think at RM8, the book is a real steal.
A Step From Heaven is the story of a Korean family, narrated in the graceful and resonant voice of the female protagonist Young Ju, who at the age of four emigrates with her family from a small fishing village in Korea to Mi Gook (the United States). While she is still in Korea, she hears praises heaped upon Mi Gook by her relatives, giving her the impression that Mi Gook is heaven.
When they arrive in Mi Gook, Young Ju’s American uncle dispels the notion that the United States is heaven, yet adds, “Let us say it is a step from heaven.” It doesn’t take them very long to realize how steep this step is. They also come to the realisation that Mi Gook is no paradise as both of Young Ju’s parents are forced to take on menial jobs in order to survive.
The 156-page book follows the life of Young Ju from the age of four through her teenage years, wrapping up her story just a few weeks before she leaves for college. The plot is a series of vignettes that touch upon the difficulties immigrants face in USA: adjusting to unfamiliar customs, learning a new language, trying to eke out a living, and mistrust of white people.
Young Ju’s father, a disillusioned man, becomes increasingly abusive to his children and wife as he descends further into alcoholism. The parts of the book where the father spirals into physical abuses are heart-wrenching. And I have an advice for those prone to tears: Have a box of tissues on stand-by as these physical abuse scenes are real tearjerker moments.
An Na, who was born in Korea and grew up in USA like Young Ju in the novel, has woven a beautifully written first novel that is at times wrenching, at times triumphant and consistently affecting. The author’s writing style is effective in conveying the main characters’ experiences. The mood is bleak for the most part, but the brilliant portrayal of Young Ju gives a sense of hope that shines through at the end.
The book has won accolades from critics. It won the Michale L. Printz Award—the award for young adult literature—and it was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The book is required reading for some high schools in USA and it was also part of the requirement for a graduate class at a American university. This is truly an amazing feat for a debut novel.