Each and every scene in Miles from Nowhere was beautifully written, but they didn’t come together into an overall story for me.
Teenage Joon is a Korean immigrant living in the Bronx of the 1980s. Her parents have crumbled under the weight of her father’s infidelity; he has left the family, and mental illness has rendered her mother nearly catatonic. So Joon, at the age of thirteen, decides she would be better off on her own, a choice that commences a harrowing and often tragic journey that exposes the painful difficulties of a life lived on the margins. Joon’s adolescent years take her from a homeless shelter to an escort club, through struggles with addiction, to jobs selling newspapers and cosmetics, committing petty crimes, and finally toward something resembling hope.
Miles from Nowhere follows Joon from the time she decides to leave home at 13. Each section is a painting of a different scene from her life, and it is a life in a downward spiral. There are details on where she’s living, the friends she has, the drugs she’s consuming,what she has to do to survive. Each section is beautifully executed, a portrait of the dark world Joon is in at that moment, with flashes back to the life that led her here.
I particularly loved the section where Joon thinks she sees God on a bus, but she loses him when the bus crashes. She then encounters several children that she suspects are angels. If some theme like this had carried through the book, it would have improved it tremendously for me.
As I think about it now, there were other threads that kept appearing, particularly regarding her absent parents, as she revisited the many ways they had always been missing from her life. It’s interesting for me to note that I had tremendous sympathy for the mentally ill mother in Up from the Blue, but none at all for the mother here– perhaps because the mother there knew the father would care for the children, and there was no such safety net here.
All in all, I didn’t feel there was an overall structure to the story that I could see, and no bright points to balance the shadows. To really love the book, I needed a map or some light to guide me.
Book Club Notes:
The group’s opinion seemed to match mine, overall. I think everyone appreciated the quality of the writing, but it was just darker than we could enjoy.
After I wrote my review, but before the club meeting, I realized that the book really is more a series of connected short stories than a novel. One member brought up the structure of Olive Kitteridge, which was upfront about being “A Novel in Stories”. The group was mixed on whether thinking of it that way while reading would have made a difference to how the disjointedness affected us. I think we were agreed that reading a single chapter as a short story would have been wonderful.
I appreciated that members of the group pointed out bits of humor that I had forgotten about when I thought back on the book, and provided additional insight as to Joon as (an unreliable) narrator.
I’d printed out a couple of copies of the Reading Guide from Penguin Books, and we spent some time talking about the link between the author’s life and Joon’s life. One of the Discussion Questions
Do you think people in the “straight world” from whom Joon seeks help—the employment officer, the nurse—treat her fairly or unfairly? Does reading this book change the way you would approach someone in Joon’s situation?
led to one of the group members asking a question that had been on his mind while reading the book: How do you help someone, particularly when they don’t appreciate the help, and may not want to be helped. We didn’t come up with any answers, but we shared stories of our attempts (or lack of attempts) to help the homeless, and to help people we were close to that were mentally ill.
Although I appreciated Miles from Nowhere, I can’t say I enjoyed it. I both appreciated and enjoyed our group’s discussion of it.
My friend Ruth won this book (and several others) for our book club, through a contest on Facebook!
Other book bloggers have looked at Miles from Nowhere.
- Linus’s Blanket (explores strengths and weaknesses well)
- Bookworm’s Dinner (loved it)
- Ex Libris (the challenge of reading a book this grim)
- Trish’s Reading Nook (didn’t finish)