On its surface, Steph Cha’s acclaimed crime novel Your House Will Pay is about revenge, an expected trope of noir fiction. The central conflict is a decades-long blood feud. In 1991, Jung-Ja Han, the matriarch of the Parks, who are Korean, shot and killed Ava Matthews, a 16-year-old Black girl, following an argument over a bottle of milk in their convenience store. Han’s subsequent exoneration helped spark the L.A. riots of 1992. In the fictive universe of the book, almost three decades later, when Han, who now goes by Yvonne Park, is shot in a drive-by, police immediately suspect that the Matthewses are involved.
Cha takes her time crafting the collective character of these two ordinary American families and the traumatized individuals within them, all trying their best to move on from a long-ago tragedy. A reader might expect to encounter characters found in other noir novels—femmes fatales, double-dealing cops, or jaded private detectives. Instead, Cha’s book keeps it relentlessly real. Her novel is informed by the true story of the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean woman, convenience store owner Soon Ja Du, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, and in Your House Will Pay, real-life injustice and inequality are presumed. It’s not a moralizing book. There are no speeches about how the law should be fairer or how America is better than the racism that devalues Black lives. Rather, injustice just is, and the Park and Matthews families have no choice but to live with the generational consequences of justice’s absence.
One of the novel’s two protagonists, Grace Park, wasn’t old enough to remember much about the L.A. riots, and yet when the novel begins, she witnesses social unrest that parallels what went down in 1992. Protests have erupted because of a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Alfonso Curiel. To Grace, police shootings are simply a part of life, and outrage is pointless.
She joined the back row of the crowd and faced the way everyone else was facing, hoping to blend in. She was here; she might as well pay attention. It wasn’t like she didn’t care. She understood there was a lot of tragedy in the world, and it bothered her, for sure, that people were racist and horrible, and that black people were dying. And this was a terrible story, even as these things went…. It was an awful shame.
Starting from a position of near-apathy, Grace will, of course, change her tune as the book progresses, as she discovers the truth about her family’s role in one of the high-profile criminal cases that instigated the 1992 riots.
On the other side, there’s Shawn Matthews, whose sister was murdered by Grace’s mother. After a two-month stint in state prison earlier in life, he’s stayed straight, making a living as a delivery-truck driver. And yet he’s keenly aware of the limitations of the American justice system. In a scene in which Shawn meets up with a gangbanger he used to run with, he recognizes that he has no shot of winning, even when playing by the rules.
He’d been proud of his life, the one he’d made for himself after prison, working hard and hurting nobody. He would’ve thought he could stand tall in front of a grown-ass man still playing gangster, trying to look down on him across a fast-food burrito.
Instead, he felt like a fucking fool. He’d played by the rules, the same rules that had put him in prison longer than his own sister’s murderer, for getting caught with drugs, for shooting at rival gang members in a firefight.
For Grace Park and Shawn Matthews, their lives are constant work-arounds, always one step from something tragic happening to their families, with no hope of accountability. This is the Los Angeles they grew up in.
Cha doesn’t bring us into the point of view of any authority figure in Your House Will Pay, and this feels intentional. Few scenes feature police officers, and the presence of lawyers is also limited. Yet these two families are in constant negotiation with the system. Tell the truth and risk being punished. Lie and risk getting punished. The blunt title of the book is a trick. With the justice system as Cha portrays it, all of our houses will pay.•
Join us June 16 at 5 p.m., when Cha will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Tod Goldberg to discuss Your House Will Pay. Until then, visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register here.