Steph Cha’s incendiary and deeply felt debut Your House Will Pay, takes as its basis an event that occurred in the lead up to the LA Riots of 1992. Not the beating of Rodney King by police but rather the shooting of a African American teenager by a Korean shopkeeper, the outcome of which was one of the catalysts of the widespread destruction of the Korean business in South Central Los Angeles. Set in the present day but with links back to the events of 1991 and 1992, Cha explores the continuing fraught relationship between the Africam American and Korean communities in LA and the inter generational effects of trauma.
In 1991, Shawn Matthews was thirteen years old when his sister Ava was killed, an event that changes the course of his life. In 2019, Shawn’s cousin Ray is coming out of prison after a long stretch for armed robbery. Both ran with gangs in the 1990s and Shawn did some time in prison himself but has now settled, with a job and a girlfriend, and has taken some responsibility for helping Ray’s wife raise her two teenage children. In another part of Los Angeles, Grace Park still lives with her parents and works in the family pharmacy. Her older sister Miriam has been estranged from their parents for the past two years for reasons that Grace cannot fathom. But soon revelations about her mother’s past will bring her world crashing down.
Your House Will Pay is for the most part a revenger’s tragedy. It is an unflinching but compassionate look at the consequences of carrying trauma, of the pressures and expectations brought on the children of those who commit crimes, and of course, being the 2010s, of the role of social media in heightening all of these issues. At the same time Cha explores the tension between supporting your family or community and supporting your ideals when these clash and of tribalism and its capacity to blunt the ability to reach a common understanding.
But in all of this Cha never loses sight of the real personal struggles of Shawn and Grace. Both are trying to do the right thing but struggle with their decisions and in dealing with the unforeseen consequences of their actions. They come from very different places but are both hamstrung by their obligations, commitments, belief structures and the expectations of their respective communities. But they are not the only complex characters in this novel, all of the characters in both the Matthews or Park families feel fully drawn.
Your House Will Pay almost plays as a thriller. Cha slowly ratchets up the tension as the two families circle each other, making misstep after misstep even when trying to calm the waters, all of which builds to a riveting finale. This is risk-taking, challenging and rewarding fiction which shines a light on the conflicts that rocked Los Angeles and the persistent echoes of that event. But also, more broadly, it exposes the dangers inherent in humanity’s capacity to retreat into tribalism and the need sometimes to take a breath and try and see things from a different perspective.