Subscriber OnlyBooks

Your House Will Pay: The deadly consequences of race conflict

Book review: Steph Cha’s deftly written novel explores Los Angeles in 1991 and 2019

Your House Will Pay
Your House Will Pay
Author: Steph Cha
ISBN-13: 978-0571348213
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £12.99

Two households, similar in dignity but worlds apart in culture and race, are at the centre of Steph Cha’s deftly written novel Your House Will Pay. The deadly consequences of racial tensions make for stark reading in this tale of two families united forever by a random act of violence. Set in Los Angeles, the dual narratives take place in 2019 and 1991, the latter an infamous year for the City of Angels, where the beating of a black man, Rodney King, by police officers led to riots a year later when the officers involved were acquitted.

Though Cha’s novel is fictional, it was inspired by the real life story of Latasha Harlins, a black teenager shot in the back of the head in 1991 in a Korean deli and liquor market. In Your House Will Pay, this girl is Ava Matthews, a young adult who loses her life in similar circumstances. A fraught opening section narrated by her younger brother Shawn prefigures the violence: four black teens are queuing for a popular movie when white officials become alarmed at the crowds and shut the theatre down, refusing to refund tickets. Rioting and looting ensues, in a tense scene where Shawn barely makes it back to his sister.

Real-life resonances abound in the novel. A shift to 2019 shows Shawn trying to rebuild his life after years in prison. Cha, who has written mystery novels before this literary fiction debut, withholds the details but the implications are clear: violence begets more violence. Elsewhere, we meet the book’s second narrator Grace – a young pharmacist of Korean descent – as she accompanies her sister Miriam to a vigil for a black boy shot by police in his own back yard: “Alfonso Curiel was just a kid, a high school student who lived with his parents in Bakersfield.” With moments like this, Cha skilfully weaves reality into her fiction. We’ve seen the stories in the news but being immersed in the world of the families affected by the violence proves a more enlightening experience.

Another facet of the internet is equally interesting – the way it can numb our responses to the most horrific violence

The dual narratives work well to highlight how issues of race have evolved in the last three decades. The book’s central question is whether they’ve become worse. The internet’s part in the spreading of hate and incitement to violence is explored. When Grace’s family becomes embroiled in a racially motivated death, her gut reaction to defend her loved ones against awful, unverified accusations is filmed and goes viral. Within minutes she’s no longer an ordinary young woman going about her life but a vilified racist facing thousands of death threats online.


Horrific violence

Another facet of the internet is equally interesting – the way it can numb our responses to the most horrific violence. (Who could imagine a few decades ago that so many people around the world would actively search for videos of human beheadings?) As a character in Cha’s novel notes, “There are too many videos. They bleed together. People get desensitised. I’d bet the Rodney King beating wouldn’t even break a few thousand views on YouTube now.”

To say more about the plot would spoil the twists and turns in Your House Will Pay, but the links between the houses are surprising and well-paced. The predicaments of both families feel real and Cha switches easily between the two. Decades after her death, Ava has become an icon of injustice for the black community. Her killer only received community service despite CCTV footage of shooting Ava in the back. Shawn’s aunt has spent years campaigning in her niece’s name. The family “didn’t know one person who thought it was right or even conceivable”, though “maybe Shawn didn’t know one person who mattered”. Elsewhere, details of the 1992 riots from a black character’s perspective are multi-layered: “Some places put up signs, like lamb’s blood, on their doors. Black owned, they said, and they were passed over. Sometimes.”

The Korean immigrant experience is where the novel really comes into its own, offering an interesting, lesser known history of the riots: “Koreans owned a lot of the businesses in South Central, and they didn’t tend to get along with their customers, who were mostly black. When the Rodney King verdict broke, they were kind of a natural target.” The attitude of second-generation immigrants is also explored on the home front between Grace and her parents, an overprotective mother and a father with strong patriarchal views.

In terms of backdrop and theme, there are echoes of Sunil Ghasi’s debut from a few years back, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, but Cha’s novel is an original story that seeks to tell two very different sides of a well-documented conflict. Your House Will Pay is an urgent portrait of a time not so long ago where civil blood made civil hands unclean.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts