Where to start? This could to be more eulogy than review. Your House Will Pay is a powerful novel, a marvellous piece of storytelling. A serious contender for book of the year, it will top many a list for 2020 and was deservedly short listed for a Lefty recently.

Your House Will Pay exemplifies everything good in crime fiction, reflecting it’s importance as social commentary. This novel is fiercely intelligent, deeply insightful and bursting with compassion and empathy. Enriching, informative and entertaining. This is a gripping psychological drama, a tragedy in the Shakespearean mould. The fates of two families, one African-American, one Korean-American, are entwined across thirty years of LA history. Your House Will Pay is proof positive that crime writers aren’t obsessed by violence and murder but want to understand it for its effect on society and the harm it does. Steph Cha explores the hurt and the anger that accompanies a violent death and how the effects persists over time, inherited guilt and responsibility are major themes. This is a novel that allows the reader to perceive the divisions between communities from their differing perspectives. The divisions that are exacerbated by political rhetoric, rampant social media and fake news. Your House Will Pay is about racism, othering, and how that shows up in judicial prejudice. Most of all, this is about ordinary people, blighted lives, blighted communities. Every action has a consequence and life gets messy and ugly sometimes. There are no heroes and villains at the heart of this story, only true people caught up in the maelstrom of events, weighed down by the burden of history. The characters here, Grace and Shawn in particular, are fully fleshed out, we sense their grief, pain, confusion, conflicted loyalty, and conviction (right and wrong headed) – their complexity.

This is a vision of society that reflects on the down side of the American dream, where ordinary people, particularly African-American people, are denied opportunity. Black Lives Matter:

“We know Alfonso Curiel was a good student. It doesn’t mean a bad student deserves to be killed.” [Shawn]

The demagoguery of Trump seems to give licence to extremism, confirm prejudice, exacerbate divisions (that’s not explicit in the text but it seems evident from my reading). The anti-immigration culture seems to forget that modern America is founded on diversity, on the huddles masses. This novel counters that dehumanising and labelling, real people are perpetrators and victims of crime, not all are criminals are ‘thugs’; see the background, see the cycles people fall into. Your House Will Pay explores how much the characters are in control of their own destiny. Grace, perhaps more than everyone else here, is forced to re-examine everything she thinks she knows about herself and her family in the light of events, truths that emerge. Suddenly violence isn’t elsewhere it’s a part of her life.

Friday, 8th March, 1991. Ava takes Shawn to the opening of New Jack City, with Ray and Duncan. The film is the talk of Shawn’s school, ‘R’ rated, he shouldn’t be here he’s only thirteen. If Aunt Sheila knew she’d beat both of them, and Ray and Duncan too, she wouldn’t get it. Ray is in a gang but Shawn only sees friendly guys, not like the films, half the kids here are in gangs anyway. Ava’s listening to classical music, the others tease her but she doesn’t mind. Ray got the tickets so they don’t have to queue. Then a man comes out of the cinema, says there are too many people, they sold too many tickets, the show’s been cancelled, it’s not fair.

“Cause they scared of us. They see ten black people and they think we bring the hood.” [Ray]

Shouts go up, ‘black power’, ‘fight the power’, someone picks up a brick, there’s genuine anger now. Glass shatters, the crowd surges, Shawn gets separated, Duncan’s suddenly got a beatbox. Despite everything it’s exciting for Shawn to be in this crowd:

“The night and the mob and the violent roar–he knew, with instinctive clarity, that the these things wouldn’t hurt them. If this was fire, they were flame. They were part of it, safe within the blaze.”

It’s a few weeks after that Ava is murdered and the riots ensue.

15th June, 2019. Grace is Korean-American but she believes all lives matter. She arrives at the court house for the rally for Alfonso, a black kid killed by a cop while trying to get into his own home a few nights ago, he probably just forgot his keys. Her sister Miriam is late, it was Miriam who pestered Grace about showing support, she is more of an activist. The sisters are not as close as they used to be. Miriam isn’t talking to their parents, Yvonne and Paul, anymore but Grace has never asked why.

Soon after that, Nisha, Ray’s wife, Dasha and Darryl, his kids, and cousin Shawn are there to greet Ray on his release from prison after ten years. Shawn has a girlfriend Jazz with a three years old daughter and a steady life. He manages to get Ray a job at Manny’s Movers, it’s going to be hard work but it’s a new start for Ray.

Grace runs the family pharmacy, she sees her parents a lot. They’re chatting about the Grand Jury for Officer Trevor Warren the killer of Alfonso Curiel when her father says:

“People make mistakes. The police didn’t know he was unarmed and he was running away from them.”

It’s not the way Grace sees it, she protests but is told to ‘be quiet’, geuman dwo, by her mother. Shortly after that Grace and her mother, Yvonne, are talking when a masked man walks up to them and shoots Yvonne. A dark link between the two shootings is revealed.

There is so much here to contemplate; the devastating effect of crime, the difficulty of starting life again, stereotyping. However, Your House Will Pay is not just about the divide between the communities, between the two families, it’s about the divide between the generations too and the added complexity of the American cultural influence, education, social mixing on younger people.

This is an ambitious novel, bold and original, real life, real people on the page, all compassionately observed. A novel that impacts on the way you see modern society, I can’t say more than that.

Paul Burke 5/5

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Faber & Faber 9780571348213 pbk Jan 2020