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Reviews Wed Jul 29 2009

Review: Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun

miles from nowhere.jpgMiles from Nowhere
by Nami Mun
(Riverhead Books, 2009)

Few of us truly know the hardships and struggles that come with running away from home. Joon, the narrator of Nami Mun's Miles from Nowhere, is not one of us. Having left home by the age of thirteen to search for her father who had abandoned their family, Joon soon realizes that it is freedom she wants and, after failing in her search, doesn't so much as return home to say goodbye to her mother before she begins her new life on the streets. The experiences and the people Joon encounters from that point on serve to educate, confuse, lift up and tear down, but, fortunately, never break her.

The book opens as Joon breaks out of a homeless shelter with her friends and fellow shelter dwellers Knowledge and Wink. It is Christmas-time and Joon finds herself following Knowledge as she forces their way into a home, intent on stealing the family's decorated tree. When they are caught in the middle of their act by the couple living there, it is only because the woman addresses Knowledge by her name that Joon realizes she is in Knowledge's parents' home. It is through similar small, spare details that Joon's own past is revealed. As a narrator, she is so protective of her mother's breakdown, her father's improprieties and her own less than admirable behavior that it is some time before we are able to piece together the remnants of Joon's past and come to an understanding about her present. This is Joon's story and she is telling us only what she wants us to know.

Though Joon is not immune the allure of such vices as drugs, alcohol and sex, she remains a fiercely defiant and independent character. A brief turn as a date-for-hire, desperate to make enough cash to pay for a night in a motel room and off the street, finds her enacting retribution on her serviced customer. A stint as an Avon Lady allows her to imagine a version of her life without the drugs, the unexpected pregnancy and the flight from home. A job at a nursing home, helping a footless patient who is unable to eat solid food, gives her a view of a life at a greater disadvantage than her own. Joon is far from the stereotype of the runaway teenager and it is to the author's credit that she is as vibrant and remarkable as she is.

"I wanted to start over, too," Joon says early in the book. "I'd left a bed and a mother to sleep under storefront awnings right beside men who thought a homeless girl was a warm radiator they could put their hands to. I'd slept in shelters, in abandoned buildings. I'd been beaten. And at the start of every new day, I still believed I could choose my own beginning, one that was scrubbed clean of everything past." This belief in the ability to start over drives Joon through all of her encounters and is what keeps from falling into despair and hopelessness. Her spirit is one that cannot be beaten down and her story is as stirring as it is captivating and imperative to read.

* * *

Miles from Nowhere is Nami Mun's first novel. Having left South Korea for the Bronx with her family, Mun was also a teenage runaway, though she affirms that the story is not based on her own experiences as such. She is currently living in Chicago where she teaches Creative Writing. Find out more about Nami Mun and her novel on her website.

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