THE SURRENDERED by Chang-Rae Lee

Book Quote:

“It was June’s decision to climb atop the overcrowded train. Since that night she had often wondered if it would have been better to wait for the next one, or to have taken their chances on foot, or else steered the twins and herself far off the main road without any provisions and simply waited for the one merciful night that would lift them away forever. The twins would not have suffered and she would not be here now. For what had surviving all the days since gotten her, save a quelled belly? She had merely prolonged the march, and now that her hunger had an altogether different face, it was her heart that was deformed, twisting with an even homelier agony.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAR 9, 2010)

Author Chang-Rae Lee had always heard that his father lost a sister on the eve of the Korean War. Then many years later, when Lee decided to interview his father about the war for a college project, he learned that a brother too had been lost then. The real-life horrific details for exactly how this brother was lost in a mass exodus of refugees from North Korea to the South form the backbone of the first chapter in Chang-Rae Lee’s haunting new novel, The Surrendered. It’s breathtakingly well-crafted and details the trek of 11-year-old orphaned June as she travels atop a boxcar full of refugees caring for two of her younger siblings.

Only June will survive this arduous trek. Lost and hungry, she chances upon an American soldier, Hector Brennan, on a road to Pusan and tentatively follows him all the way to an orphanage in the city.

Both Hector and June look at the orphanage as their final destination. June of course finds safety there but Hector too decides to stay behind and help with odd jobs—hoping it will help rid the scars of both the war and a childhood ridden with guilt.

At the orphanage, Hector’s and June’s paths cross with Sylvie Tanner, the wife of a missionary who is herself a terribly conflicted soul. Even as she struggles to control her addiction to drugs she also fights her attraction toward the incredibly handsome Hector. Orphaned June, for her part, finds Sylvie irresistible and clings to her almost like an obsession. Over the course of many years, June and Hector vie for Sylvie’s attention and it is this interplay of their feelings toward each other that will cause serious damage later.

The Surrendered moves seamlessly in time back and forth from what once happened in Korea to the present where June is now a middle-aged woman dying of cancer. The early chapters find her closing down her business, an antiques shop in New York City, getting ready to look for her son, Nicholas, who left for Europe and never returned. From an occasional postcard that he sends, she has a vague inkling he is somewhere in Italy. She hires a private eye to track down Hector Brennan, and insists Hector travel with her to Italy. She knows the trip will afford her one last meeting with her son. In addition, she promises Hector that the trip will bring them both closure to events that happened years ago. Hector will also get to meet his son—yes, Nicholas is the product of the only sexual interaction between June and Hector.

Hector, meanwhile, is in Fort Lee, New Jersey working as a night custodian at an ethnic Korean mall. “He took a small pleasure in the idea that more than thirty years of tumultuous world history should presently lead to a moment like this, for him to be dressed in cheap overalls, mop in hand, preparing to clean the toilets of a grubby Korean mall in New Jersey for this most slothful of their kind, a man who was, literally, born in a roadside ditch during the war but didn’t remotely know or care a thing about it now,” Lee writes of Hector’s present-day situation.

Finally June manages to convince Hector to make the trip. As they make their way through Italy, and as June’s condition increasingly worsens, Lee systematically lays to rest many of the unanswered questions that swirl around the incidents that happened in Korea.

By the time the novel ends, you become increasingly aware just how hauntingly sad it is, that the 11-year-old orphan who once craved food eventually struggles with stomach cancer—a “full belly.” It is a touch of irony that totally works under Lee’s expert touch.

Lee writes in a style that is rich and at the same time brutally forthright. As in his earlier works, The Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, this book too has some very violent scenes. This book is not for the squeamish. At the same time, it all feels like such an integral part of the story that the narrative just works. In certain places, Lee’s writing does feel labored—but these instances are few and far between.

In one chapter, The Surrendered takes us to Manchuria—back to when Sylvie was a young girl—to illuminate the tragedy she witnessed after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. So that she might never forget the horrors of war, Sylvie often re-reads a slim book “A Memory of Solferino,” by J.H. Dunant. This book (which is also one of Lee’s personal favorites) is filled with horrific details of a massive battle fought in 1859 between French and Austrian forces in an Italian town. Sylvie relies on the book to remind her of the enormity of what happened in Korea, years later. “You should have been a soldier,” Hector tells her when he learns of Sylvie’s attachment to the book, “Then you’d be dying to forget.”

Lee has said that his novel was meant to be not so much a discourse about war as about the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit. He points out that the most haunting reaction of all is a quiet, almost invisible, endurance. This is certainly true in The Surrendered. Its beauty is that it emphasizes the point that every human being has a past layered with many untold stories—which can create a deep impression that lasts forever. And while The Surrendered has plenty of dramatic moments—both of violence and grace—it is the quiet equanimity that June and Hector display right up to the beautiful ending that really takes your breath away.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 75 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (March 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Chang-Rae Lee
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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March 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Korea, Reading Guide, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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