Chang-rae Lee's 'The Surrendered': an ambitious story of post-war sorrow and struggle
A review of Chang-rae Lee's new novel, "The Surrendered," the story of three people whose lives are stunted and shattered by the Korean War. Lee reads Monday, March 15, at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "The Surrendered" will read at 7 p.m. Monday in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636; www.spl.org). Co-presented by the Washington Center for the Book and the Elliott Bay Book Co; free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead, 480 pp., $26.95
Chang-rae Lee, best-selling and award-winning author of "Native Speaker," "A Gesture Life" and "Aloft," returns with his biggest novel yet in terms of both size and scope.
"The Surrendered," an ambitious and ineffably sad novel of war and a search for belonging, is the story of three people forever and invincibly damaged by war, all of them ingrown, selfish and emotionally stunted.
In 1950, June Han is an 11year-old girl when she sees her father and brother taken away and her older sister and her mother blown up by explosive devices, detonated by North Korean soldiers at the end of the war. She is left to care for her 7-year-old twin siblings, as they try to walk away from the ruined earth left behind. It proves to be an impossible task, the failure of which marks her for life.
Starving, filthy and nearly delirious, June is found alone on the road by Hector Brennan, an American GI who stayed on when the war ended, mostly for lack of a better idea. Home has never been where his heart is; in fact, it would be hard to find its location. He takes June to the orphanage near Seoul where he works as a handyman.
June and Hector are both loners. Hector is a brawler and womanizer; June is mean, angry and sneaky. They have been shaped by their painful experiences, and nothing has happened that might change the equation. Hector is a kind of Superman; no matter how vicious the fight, he feels no pain, heals quickly and is ready to do it all again: "It was amazing but, through all the battles and firefights and skirmishes, he'd never been seriously injured: he'd been knifed and shot, even hit by shrapnel, but they were always superficial strikes, glancing off him as if he were shielded by the harder steel of some mysterious fortune." This invincibility does not extend to his spirit.
The orphanage is run by missionaries Sylvie and Ames Tanner. Ames is a dedicated, self-sacrificing missionary, imbued with the spirit of doing good. Sylvie tries hard, but she is damaged goods, a victim of the soul-destroying vision of her parents being killed by Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, as well as her own torturous ravishment at the soldiers' hands. She eases the psychic pain with drugs.
June and Hector are both obsessed with Sylvie and, when June finds that she is not going to be adopted and taken away by the Tanners, she commits a heinous act resulting in disaster. Hector, in typical fashion, simply travels on.
These three haunted souls collide in time and place, bringing similar visions of the world with them. They all try out a version of love on each other, which more closely resembles need. The circumstances of the novel are horrific, the people unlovable and, in the end, there is no tidy redemption. The plot moves back and forth in time — the novel begins in 1986, when June sends for Hector, asking him to travel with her to Europe to find her son, Nicholas. As the story unfolds, Hector and June's time together is almost a dream sequence, replete with flashbacks, explanations, secrets revealed and kept, regrets, hopes dashed and rekindled.
In Lee's hands, the humanity of all concerned and their struggle for survival are irresistible. Hector commits an act of kindness toward June, drug-addicted and dying in Europe, that allows her a peaceful death. Lee is a masterful storyteller. While it is hard to prioritize his work in terms of good/better/best, this novel stands very high on the list.
Valerie Ryan owns the Cannon Beach Book Co. in Cannon Beach, Ore.