Happiness Falls: A Novel
- By Angie Kim
- 400 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- September 19, 2023
This stellar, nuanced mystery transcends typical whodunit tropes.
At the outset, there’s a sleepy suburban ambience about Happiness Falls, which takes place just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. A man and his 14-year-old son have set out for a morning walk in a nearby park, as they do most days. But today the boy stumbles home alone, distraught and at a hellbent run, his clothes spattered with blood. When his mom and older twin siblings question him, he’s unable to tell them what happened.
The missing-person opening is a fictional commonplace, but author Angie Kim reinvigorates the formula with a host of remarkably non-standard particulars, nudging this, her second book, past the familiar whodunit drapery. The result is a challenging, thoughtful novel of ideas that nevertheless holds fast to a traditional mystery’s rhythms of sequential discovery.
Eugene Parkson, the traumatized boy, can’t explain what happened, but not out of shock or terror. Eugene can’t speak because he’s disabled, stricken from birth with a condition that blocks his ability to use language in any way, oral or written, or even to marshal the neuro-muscular control necessary for conventional sign language. The daily trek into the park, a preserve flanked by a deadly stretch of whitewater, is part of stay-at-home-dad Adam’s routine for enriching his son’s life. The reason why the father has not returned from this outing is locked inside the boy’s mind.
Eugene’s sister Mia, a precociously bright and hyper-voluble college sophomore, is the tale’s narrator. She, in contrast to Eugene, has a bountiful flair for language fueled by a wide-ranging intellect. Mia recounts the events, revelations, and setbacks that follow from her dad’s puzzling disappearance in a prolix narrative stream freighted with family recollections, personal reflections, opinions, and digressions aplenty.
The puzzle spills out at a time of extraordinary disruption and confusion. It’s summer 2020. Northern Virginia, like the rest of the country, is barreling toward the crest of the covid-19 pandemic. Public and private institutions are shutting their doors. People are masking up. Community events mirror the logistical barriers that bedevil the Parksons’ search for the truth and — luckily for the family — impede an over-hasty disposition of the case by the police.
The official investigation — spearheaded by Lieutenant Morgan Janus, as two-faced as her ancient Arthurian and Roman namesakes — has shifted ominously against Eugene, imperiling the Parksons’ attempts to unravel the missing Adam’s fate. What the family unveils suggests a man as enigmatic as the circumstances of his disappearance. He appears to have harbored a cluster of secrets: a possible terminal illness, an adulterous affair, and — particularly crushing to this ostensibly close-knit family — a scheme to deal with Eugene’s condition solo.
Some readers, most likely those who prize plot over characterization, may find Mia’s narration troubling, most notably her insistence on studding the story with long, explicatory passages (and even some extensive footnotes). “Based on a timeline I constructed using phone records, weather data, and timed recreations,” she muses, “I’ve calculated how much time we lost by virtue of my erroneous assumption: four hours, give or take five minutes.”
In literary context, Mia’s super-rationality brands her as an heir to Holmes, Marple, and Poirot, though she may strike some readers as over the top, more showy observer than single-minded solver. Arguably, her serial fascinations threaten to deflate the suspense just as it gathers momentum. And she’s clearly her father’s daughter. As she burrows into the case, she cracks Adam’s encoded notebooks and cell phone, which recount his own obsessively analytical “experiments” as he sets out to quantify with ruthless objectivity what constitutes human happiness.
Other readers may view the author’s portrayal of Mia as a triumph of characterization and the creative hallmark that elevates this novel from damn good to truly outstanding.
Though Mia’s explicative labors have pressed on throughout, she ultimately sits on her hands as two brilliant professional women, relatively late on the scene, engineer the climactic resolution to the family’s crisis. In a gripping, Zoom-mediated showdown echoing the courtroom dramas of earlier mystery prototypes, they put most of the troubling questions to rest.
Most of the questions, I note, for the intellectually indefatigable Mia has been chewing the matter over and can’t seem to shake a lingering wisp of doubt. But readers should harbor no doubts about this book’s quality or Angie Kim’s rightful place among the ranks of important American novelists. Happiness Falls settles the matter.
Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.