by Chang-rae Lee
Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
In his latest novel, The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee succeeds again where he has succeeded in past works of fiction, only this time with even more intensity, more verve, more depth, more sorrow.
Characters are perfectly rendered in an epic tale that spans several generations. And Lee quietly, deftly delves into the suffering distinct to each man and each woman he's created -- physical pain vying with mental anguish -- and explores, too, the longing for reconciliation that always seems just one more winding-road drive away.
As with Lee's earlier novels, A Gesture Life and Aloft among them, language is king in The Surrendered. The astonishing precision of imagery, of verb choices, of sentence cadence and rhythm, is so accomplished that, like all masters, Lee makes the writing look far simpler than it is.
"It was an effortlessly monstrous ability, as if she could simply pluck from her heel a spur called love, her own cool blood the quickest antidote," he writes of one character, June, a description of a conflicted interior life that resounds through these pages.
The novel has several settings, the most vivid a postwar Korean orphanage run by a couple, a stiff American missionary whose expectations get the better of him and his deeply wounded wife Sylvie. One of the orphans, 11-year-old June Han, whose family has perished in the war, turns to Sylvie for a desperate kind of succor, only to be confused again and again by a woman who wants to give of herself but simply cannot. June becomes increasingly calcified in pain, while Sylvie nearly emerges from emotional torpor when she finds a lover named Hector, a former U.S. soldier who's stayed on to help at the orphanage -- though this relationship, too, soon falls into sad disarray.
While Lee keeps the focus tight on these three, a triangle of characters who play out the book's central dilemmas, he also manages to pull back and give the reader a broad view of war's horror, as well as the lingering residue of that horror.
Hector, who believes at one point that "he was being replaced, cell by cell, with bits of stone," is particularly well-drawn in the midst of the price war exacts, his strength of character and self-loathing brilliantly at odds. The novel as a whole is organized around nearly unfathomable incidents of violence -- violence that becomes implanted in its survivors, Sylvie, June, Hector, and begins to eat them alive even as they search for a mere glimmer of salvation.