The Surrendered, the fourth novel by Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee (1965-) is at once a big book (480 pages) encompassing three generations of characters on the same number of continents, and sketchy. There are enthralling, often horrifying set pieces, but the middle of the story of the two main characters who survive the frozen hell of the Korean war is barely sketched.
The novel opens with a harrowing account of an eleven-year-old Korean girl, June Han, trying to protect her younger brother and sister in a desperate flight south from the communists. Her teacher father was rounded up as a traitor and her older brother was drafted and either killed or captured. Her older sister is taken away for sexual servitude, but blown up with her mother on the road. Which leaves June clinging to the top of a boxcar on a south-moving train.
The horrors are by no means over for her, and she is nearly dead from starvation when an America GI from upstate New York (Ilion), persuades her to follow him to an orphanage. Hector Brennan has had traumatic experiences I the war himself, including an enemy soldier who is tortured by another member of Hector’s squad and ends up begging to be put out of his misery. After that Hector worked with black GIs on tending to corpses. Better stinking remains than seeing or inflicting more killings, Hector decided. And he was already suffering survivor guilt and sexual guilt from the death of his alcoholic father before the war.
At the orphanage to which he led June, he becomes an indispensable handyman, and also the lover of Sylvie, the opium-addicted wife of a Presbyterian missionary who runs the orphanage and is frequently away setting up other ones. The children love Sylvie, June most of all and forges a special relationship with her.
Sylvie Tanner was the child of missionaries in Manchuria at the time the Japanese annexed it. Although that is not where she became addicted to opium, she witnessed the rape of her mother, the torture of her young Chinese mentor, Benjamin Li, and more before escaping (how she did is another lacuna in the novel).
There are more disasters and bases for survivor guilt for both June and Hector at the orphanage. 30years on, June has closed her successful Manhattan antique business, sold her co-op apartment (or vacated it if she was renting it) and hired a private detective to find Hector and to find the son she had by him (seemingly not with him, though it seems she got to the USA as his wife) who went off to Europe after graduating from high school and never came back. Nicholas seems to have used what he learned about antiques form his mother’s business, working and stealing from a succession of European antique shops.
It may seem like I have told a lot of the plot, but I have only laid out the beginnings of the layers of stories of suffering and anguish of June, Hector, and Sylvie and of the very complicated relationships at the Korean orphanage, the most extended — though interrupted — story in the center of the web of anguished failures to save others in the novel.
As if there weren’t enough horror from the wreckage of Korea in the 1950s, Lee includes three accidental deaths and two by cancer and a charred copy of J. H. Dun ant’s 1862 A Memory of Soldering, the site of an 1859 battle that was fought in what is now northern Italy (between Verona and Milan) and was the last major battle in world history where all the involved armies were under the personal command of their monarchs (Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II against the Hapsburg Franz Joseph I) involving more than 200, 000 men and 37,000 casualties, and leading to the founding in 1863 of both the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions on warfare. The Red Cross link is why Sylvie’s mother gave it to her. (Both Sylvie and Hector witness Violations of the Geneva Convention.) I don’t think that Lee needed to pile on casualties from the Second Italian War of Independence, though the chain of ownership of the book spans four generations.
The opening is so painful to read about that I put it down twice. After surviving that, I devoured the remaining 450+ pages in two days. That qualifies it as a “page-turner.” There were surprises and there are still some things I find mysterious, including how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration. Light reading, The Surrendered definitely is not, but compelling reading, it is.
©2010, 2016 Stephen O. Murray