Reviews for Surrendered

Booklist Reviews 2010 February #2
*Starred Review* "Life was too fearsome," learns Hector, an American of problematic good looks and miraculous physical invincibility who unwillingly abets in the deaths of his loved ones. Hector's suffering turns mythic when he enlists to fight in Korea, then stays to work at an orphanage, where his fate becomes entwined with that of young June, who arrives alone and starving after trying valiantly to save her younger siblings. Seeking sanctuary, both damaged souls instead are tormented by love for Sylvie, the director's beautiful wife, herself severely marked by the murders of her Good Samaritan parents by the Japanese in Manchuria. With his signature empathy and artistry, Lee links emotionally complex events at the orphanage with equally nuanced and devastating encounters three decades later, when June, a flinty New York antiques dealer dying of cancer, reunites with Hector, a brooding janitor. Profoundly committed to authenticity, and in command of a remarkable gift for multidimensional metaphors, Lee dramatizes the guilt and "mystery of survival" in scenes of scalding horror and breathtaking beauty. With the war chronicle that engendered the Red Cross, The Memory of Solferino (1862), by Nobel Peace Prize winner J. H. Dunant, as his polestar, Lee has created a masterpiece of moral and psychological imagination unsparing in its illumination of the consequences of bloodshed and war. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2010 March
Mercy and madness

Although much of Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel takes place during the Korean War and after the armistice in 1953, the author insists that The Surrendered is not a war story. “It’s a book about historical traumas and how those traumas exhibit themselves and find expression in individual people,” he tells BookPage from his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

Clocking in at nearly 500 pages and spanning six decades across four continents, this riveting and heart-wrenching narrative is alternately told from three points of view, shifting back and forth from past to present. The novel combines compelling character stories with devastating and timeless social commentary.

My conversation with Lee occurred shortly after a massive earthquake struck Haiti, and it was difficult not to dwell on the book’s relevance to this contemporary disaster. Lee agrees that the tragic stories from Haiti are related to the central theme of The Surrendered: “What happens to someone after an experience with mass conflict and traumatic violence?”

In his three previous novels, Native Speaker, A Gesture Life and Aloft, Lee has established himself as a storyteller of the immigrant experience in America—and the alienation that goes with it. The Surrendered, it seems, represents a departure. “My previous books have been focused on someone’s place in a society or culture,” he says. “I think this book is much more interested in the individual in a conditionality—and the conditionality being, of course, violence and war.”

Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University and has two daughters (ages nine and 12), admits he’s glad that “this one is out and done.” He says, “This book certainly took a long time. That was frustrating to me . . . although my wife sometimes thinks I wouldn’t write any faster even if I didn’t have a teaching job.”

When the book opens, 11-year-old June Han is fleeing Korea with her younger brother and sister. Hector Brennan is an American GI who takes June to an orphanage after her siblings die in a tragic accident. The wife of a missionary, Sylvie Tanner helps run the orphanage, and she entrances June and Hector to the point of obsession. The novel moves between scenes at the orphanage in Korea and in later decades when Hector and June reunite in New Jersey. The two eventually make a pilgrimage to Solferino, Italy, the site of a battle that haunted Sylvie.

In one early passage in Korea, June’s brother is dismembered on the roof of a moving train. This scene was inspired by Lee’s father, who lost his younger brother in a similar accident during the Korean War. Lee, who came to the U.S. as a three-year-old and now considers his connection to Korea “more familial than personal,” was startled to learn of this event while writing a biographical paper about his father for a seminar in college.

“The story as he told it was just a few sentences,” Lee says. “But that story always haunted me and had always stayed with me.” In conceiving of The Surrendered, Lee never intended to incorporate the train scene, although he realized in the middle of writing that it would fit nicely into the events of June’s life.

“So I completely fictionalized all the details that you read there. It didn’t have any before. But the basic thrust of that chapter is wandering as a refugee and really traumatic loss of family. That’s something that I thought was absolutely right for June.”

With this scene, and with many others, Lee does not let the reader off easy; there are no neat, uplifting endings for June, Hector or Sylvie. However, one of the story’s most resounding motifs is mercy—not the typical kind of mercy, as light and hope and forgiveness, although there is some of that, but rather mercy as necessity or expedience. “It’s also the mercy of delusion and allusion,” Lee explains.

Although Lee did not consider mercy as a theme when he was writing The Surrendered, he agrees that it is a focal point of the book. “I think it’s just a natural outgrowth of what’s left after such intense and gratuitous heartbreak and misery,” he says. “One of the things that I was trying to answer for myself in this book is not just how people put their lives back together in the day-to-day [‘they don’t do it very well,’ Lee says as an aside], but also what can they morally hang on to? And emotionally hang on to? What kind of humane moment or act can lead them out of this very dark hole that they’re all in?”

Readers learn how mercy can arise in the midst of horror in one of the book’s most viscerally painful scenes, when Sylvie’s missionary parents are tortured by Japanese officers in Manchuria. “Mercy was the only true deliverance,” Lee writes. “There was nothing more exaltedly human, more beautiful to behold.”

As June, Hector and Sylvie journey through the trauma of war and its aftermath, it is natural to question Lee’s purpose in writing The Surrendered Is it a warning about the repercussions of mass violence? A meditation on the power of human resilience?

The author’s answer rings true to the reader’s experience. “It’s absolutely both,” Lee says. “Like an alternating current, it’s always alternating between the two. As a reader of this book and as a writer of this book, I can’t reside comfortably in either idea for very long. To switch metaphors, you’re constantly buffeted by these opposing winds.”

Lee pauses, then evokes the book’s final scene, at the end of June’s life. “It’s a book that ends in awe of life and all that life is,” he says. “Not really judging it one way or the other. Just agape. Saying: wow. Look at these people and how they’ve expressed themselves.”

If that answer is unsatisfying to readers who crave unequivocally happy endings, consider a line from Hector’s father: “They tell us stories not to live by but to change.” Epic and tragic, moving and lyrical, The Surrendered is not only literature that enthralls, it is a novel that will make you reflect on the world in which you live—and inspire dreams of peaceful change. As Lee says, “What a wonderful world it would be if a novel like mine could not be written, because there’s no reference. That would be amazing.”


Review of Chang-rae Lee's Aloft

Review of Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture LIfe

Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 February #2
The odyssey of a Korean War refugee becomes first the subject of, then a haunting overture to, the award-winning Korean-American author's fourth novel (Aloft, 2004, etc.).Lee's introspective and interrogatory novels seek the sources of their characters' strengths and weaknesses in their own, and their families' stories--nowhere more powerfully than in this exhaustive chronicle of three hopeful lives tempered in the crucibles of wars and their enduring aftermaths. In a patiently developed and intermittently slowly paced narrative that covers a 30-year span and whose events occur in four countries and on three continents, the entangled histories of three protagonists are revealed. We first encounter 11-year-old June Han, traveling with her twin siblings following the deaths of their parents toward safety with their uncle's family. June's willed stoicism and suppression of fear serve her well in extremity, but they will have a far different effect on her later life--shaped when she is rescued by American G.I. Hector Brennan (himself in flight from the memory of a painful loss). Hector brings June to Sylvie Tanner, a minister's wife who runs an orphanage (and whose own demons owe much to the savagery of history in another place and another time). Each character's past, motivations and future prospects are rigorously and compassionately examined, as the author follows them after the war. In its ineffably quiet way, there really is something Tolstoyan in this searching fiction's determination to understand the characters specifically as members of families and products of other people's influences. The characterizations of Hector and Sylvie are astonishingly rich and complex, and the risk taken in depicting the adult June as the woman readers will hope she would not become is triumphantly vindicated.A major achievement, likely to be remembered as one of this year's best books. Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 November #1
Little June Han and American G.I. Hector Brennan meet at an orphanage during the Korean War, where they come under the sway of a radiant but troubled missionary wife. Thirty years later, they must revisit the consequences. Suggested by a story Lee's father told him in passing; probably the most important literary fiction on this list. With a national tour; reading group guide. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2009 November #2

June Singer is a middle-aged Korean woman living in the United States and dying of cancer, but before she dies, she wants to accomplish two things: find her son, who is drifting around Italy, and make a redemptive pilgrimage to the Chapel of Bones. She enlists the unwilling help of Hector, her son's father, whom she hasn't seen since the 1950s, when she was a child in a Korean orphanage and Hector was an ex-soldier working as the handyman. Throughout June and Hector's painful journey, we learn about the Tanners, the couple who ran the orphanage; Sylvie Tanner's childhood as a daughter of missionaries who were slain in front of her; the possessive love that June and Hector had for Sylvie; and the resulting calamity that has haunted them their whole lives. VERDICT This is a completely engrossing story of great complexity and tragedy. Lee's (Aloft) ability to describe his characters' sufferings, both physical and mental, is extraordinarily vivid; one is left in awe of the human soul's ability to survive the most horrific experiences.--Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2009 October #4

Lee's masterful fourth novel (after Aloft) bursts with drama and human anguish as it documents the ravages and indelible effects of war. June Han is a starving 11-year-old refugee fleeing military combat during the Korean War when she is separated from her seven-year-old twin siblings. Eventually brought to an orphanage near Seoul by American soldier Hector Brennan, who is still reeling from his father's death, June slowly recovers from her nightmarish experiences thanks to the loving attention of Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the orphanage's minister. But Sylvie is irretrievably scarred as well, having witnessed her parents' murder by Japanese soldiers in 1934 Manchuria. These traumas reverberate throughout the characters' lives, determining the destructive relationship that arises between June, Hector and Sylvie as the plot rushes forward and back in time, encompassing graphic scenes of suffering, carnage and emotional wreckage. Powerful, deeply felt, compulsively readable and imbued with moral gravity, the novel does not peter out into easy redemption. It's a harrowing tale: bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking--and not to be missed. (Mar.)

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