four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
39-Mar-Apr-2009
By: 
Nami Mun
user_rating: 
0

A-Miles from NowhereNami Mun’s debut novel might be mistaken for a memoir; like her protagonist, Mun was born in Seoul, grew up in the Bronx, ran away from home, and held a host of menial jobs. But the comparisons end there. Mun, who received her MFA from the University of Michigan, now teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

The Story: In 1980s New York, Joon-Mee, a 12-year-old South Korean immigrant, leaves her dysfunctional Bronx home—including a mentally ill mother and a philandering, alcoholic father—for life on the streets. Over six years, the emotionally needy Joon experiences life in a homeless shelter, walks the streets, becomes addicted to drugs, enters the world of violence and crime, works as a door-to-door Avon lady, and takes on other unskilled jobs. When she is finally arrested for stealing food, Joon tries to clean herself up in rehab and 12-step programs. Miles from Nowhere ultimately gives hope to Joon’s plight as it casts an unsparing eye on life at the margins of society.
Riverhead. 304 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 1594488541

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] gritty, riveting story about a teenage runaway who drifts through the casual nightmares of street life—homelessness, illicit drug use, prostitution—while keeping a sort of bemused sense of humor about it all. … But amid all the gloom, Mun also sneaks in hope, like somebody smuggling shiny contraband under a tattered jacket." Julia Keller

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 of 5 Stars
"About the only flaw in Mun’s debut is that many of its chapters read like individual short stories rather than cohesive parts of a whole. This is a minor shortcoming amid brilliant description, achingly real narration and an affecting central character." John Marshall

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Joon meets a multitude of pungent characters, none of them caricatures: Knowledge, for example, a wild, junkie lesbian who later becomes a social worker, only to be murdered by a deranged client; or Benny, the boyfriend who, in a drugged delirium, carves Joon up with a knife, putting her in the hospital because he loves her so much he wants to see her insides. … It’s to [Mun’s] credit as an artist that she has written this unsettling, unsentimental novel." Chauncey Mabe

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"The subject matter alone will make the book a tough read for some. Though unfolding in clean, unsentimental prose, it is at times unbearably sad: Is there some redemption, some relief in store for a girl who suffers through so much?" Beatriz Terrazas

Critical Summary

An intense and gritty look at life o n the streets, Miles from Nowhere earned high praise from critics. Although Mun claims that only one percent is autobiographical, reviewers described the novel as wholly authentic. The strength lies in Joon’s distinctive first-person narration—at once poetic, resilient, and very human. Secondary characters, from a junkie-turned-social worker to a violent boyfriend, are equally compelling. Critics also commended Mun’s evocative, raw writing of street life. Two reviewers mentioned that the short chapters, which capture a memory or a moment in time, lack clear transitions and cohesion. And readers wishing for a happy story may find the glimmer of hope running through the novel not quite strong enough. Nonetheless, Miles is a strong debut from a writer to watch.