Fiction – hardcover; Riverhead; 304 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
As an adolescent runaway on the streets of 1980s New York, Joon finds herself in many dangerous situations in which she must live by her wits and be guided, in part, by the trusty survival instincts of her best friend Knowledge, who is three years her senior.
Miles from Nowhere, which is by first-time novelist Nami Mun, covers everything from Joon’s stint living in a homeless shelter to her coming to grips with the eye-opening reality of escort work in a night club. Then there’s her addiction to drugs and her love affair with a fellow addict that results, somewhere down the line, in an abortion.
Every now and then there are glimmers of hope, as she tries to turn her life around, whether by getting a lowly-paid job — in one case selling cosmetics door to door as an Avon Lady — or trying to reconcile with her parents who don’t seem to care too much about her plight.
But on the whole, this is a rather depressing coming-of-age story that covers already well trodden ground. There’s no doubt that it’s beautifully written, but I’ve read so many books of a similar nature — see How the Light Gets In by MJ Hyland and Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill — that I’m not sure this one manages to say anything that I haven’t already heard before.
Still, it’s an impressive debut, with some great characterisation (it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Joon and her cohorts, despite their hardened, street-wise and occasionally criminal personas) and a cracking narrative. And the ending, when it comes, lets you see that perhaps it is possible for a young person to survive a life in the margins after all and emerge that little bit stronger and wiser…