Written by: Chang-Rae Lee
Published by: Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: Darren Sextro, McClatchy Newspapers
A slim volume of history - faded blue, cloth-covered early on, then charred to delicacy - travels through the weighty volume of historical fiction that is "The Surrendered" by Chang-Rae Lee.
How the book comes to be damaged is a breathtaking scene, among many, in what is destined to be one of the most purposeful novels of this year.
Lee, a Korean-American who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, has wandered the edge of greatness in the 14 years since his first novel, "Native Speaker," won both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, a high honor for debut fiction, and the American Book Award.
This was followed by another celebrated exploration of the Asian immigrant experience, "A Gesture Life," and then a less successful experiment with Italian-American themes in "Aloft."
We begin this novel's journey in 1950 with three Korean children atop a moving train. June Han, at 11, is the eldest and now the protector of her twin sister and brother, displaced as they flee the northern Communist reunification forces and orphaned by the panicked violence of southern Republic of Korea armed soldiers. Their world has been reduced to flies and mosquitoes, mud, injury and hunger, "their minds in arrest, in the suspension of any future save the one in which they persisted, kept on."
Horrific things occur. Lee is unafraid to detail extreme cruelty and its resulting violence, but there is purpose here: not only an exploration of what we can survive, but the ways in which we persevere. And because this is a work that visits six decades, it is also a testament to the long-term persistence, and occasional surrender, of the human spirit.
June survives the Korean War, and the heart-stopping first chapter, to resurface in Manhattan in 1986. She is now threatened from within. As her body yields to cancer, she reconnects with a man from her past, Hector Brennan, to help find her son.
Hector's own destructive story, including his culpability in his father's death, bounces back to post-war South Korea and the orphanage where he, an ex-GI, and June both fell in love with a missionary wife, Sylvie Tanner. By the time Lee pulls us deep into 1934 Manchuria to detail the brutal, life-altering episode of Sylvie's young adulthood, a complex triangle of damaged characters has been created.
The book that Lee uses as a motif throughout "The Surrendered" is "A Memory of Solferino" by Jean Henri Dunant. The memoir, published in 1862, put harrowing specifics to an Italian battle that injured and killed tens of thousands, and it resulted in the creation of the Red Cross. In Sylvie, Hector and June, Lee finds 20th -century metaphors.