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Natalie San Luis on "The Surrendered"

Cover of "The Surrendered": Girl with a twig

Chang-rae Lee

The Surrendered

Riverhead Books, 2010
484 pages

Reviewed by Natalie San Luis

In The Surrendered, his fourth and most highly acclaimed novel, Chang-rae Lee introduces the reader to three survivors of the Korean War: June, an obstinate, orphaned Korean refugee; Hector, a stony, emotionally damaged ex-GI; and Sylvie, the weathered, selfless reverend’s wife whom both June and Hector desperately desire. Three decades after the end of the war, a terminally ill June enlists Hector’s help in finding her estranged son before her death. The narrator steadily unravels the characters’ gripping histories through a series of flashbacks to the years that June, Hector, and Sylvie spent in a South Korean orphanage. As their journey progresses, June and Hector must confront the damaged remains of their relationships with Sylvie, creating a territory fraught with harrowing violence, trauma, and enduring shame.

As a storyteller, Lee easily settles into the close third-person narrative, portraying stunningly realistic characters through meticulous details. The pace of the narrative slows significantly during certain scenes and memories, forcing the reader to experience each moment of the characters’ disturbing experiences. From Hector’s wartime accounts of burying “rotting bod[ies] visibly shifting and radiating a sickening warmth” from maggots to the brutally tactile sensations of Sylvie’s hidden drug addiction, the narrator’s elegant but unrelenting description keeps the audience engaged and affected.

Chang-rae Lee’s commentary on war avoids the traps of heavy-handedness and proselytizing. Faceless soldiers carry out most of the heart-wrenching deaths in the novel, and the politics of the military conflict remain largely unexamined. Rather, the narrator dials in on the human experience of war: the effect of violence on lovers, on families, on strangers. As one of the soldiers responsible for Sylvie’s parents’ death explained, 

“[T]he rest of us, soldiers or missionaries or bystanders, we must endure the consequences. We must act out the remainder as best we can, according to our roles.”

Despite the powerful prose, parts of the novel seem contrived. A significant part of Hector’s identity lies in his self-loathing. A great deal of his anger is wrapped up in the culpability he feels towards the deaths of his father, a young boy from the war, and a former lover. He survives everyone he cares about, and accidents never leave him with more than superficial injuries. However, by the end of the novel, Hector’s storyline feels strained. As the last person Hector cares about suffers cruelly at the hands of fate, he feels incredulous that he is still alive, reflecting on the unbelievably bad luck that has befallen him. Unfortunately, the narrator’s characterization of Hector as doomed to invincibility falls flat; instead, his series of painful misfortunes seems unrealistic at times.

The Surrendered is a novel that is remarkably powerful and simultaneously disturbing. Like June, Hector, and Sylvie, the reader experiences the violence that befalls the characters as an unsparing, perpetual force, as unyielding and tremulous as the train that lurches and kills June’s young siblings in the opening chapter. Chang-rae Lee’s work is well-crafted and compelling, guiding the reader through intimate histories of violence and tragedy, through the agonizing reconstruction of a broken past.