Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered is a haunting, somber, yet sometimes beautiful book.
It follows the lives of three characters, June, Sylvie, and Hector, each of whom has faced tragedy. As a child, June loses her family in the Korean War and, for a very brief time, finds safety and kindness at an orphanage run by American missionaries. This safety is fleeting, however, and the kindness leads to disaster and more tragedy—not only for June but for Hector and Sylvie as well. Hector, a young American soldier, who finds June on the roadside and takes her to the orphanage, has seen and participated in unspeakable violence. As a child, Sylvie, a missionary at the orphanage who cares for both Hector and June, witnessed the gruesome deaths of her parents, also missionaries.
The acts of violence each character witnesses, and in Hector’s instance also takes part in, become ingrained in their psyches. They are unable to forget or move beyond their memories. They survive these traumas, but as Lee makes clear, survival isn’t always enough.
This story’s epic scope is much broader than the Korean War. Hector and June’s story travels through several continents and finishes three decades later in the ‘80s where June, who is living in New York and dying of cancer, reunites with Hector to find her son and make a pilgrimage to The Chapel of Bones. Sylvie’s story starts much earlier with the events leading up to World War II.
The book is not always easy to read. The acts of violence are plentiful and realistic. The callousness with which Zelenko, a minor character who is serving in the war with Hector, ruptures a Chinese soldier’s eardrum by blowing a horn directly into it is only made more horrific by the knowledge that this Chinese soldier is only 14- or 15-years-old. The horn is blown into this “boy soldier’s” ear over and over until “the boy crumpled to his knees, crying miserably, and Zelenko had his buddy, Morra, wire together his hands behind him so he couldn’t shield himself. Then he blew the horn again. He did it three more times and with such vehemence that his face grew flushed, as if he’d inflated a roomful of party balloons. But on the last one the boy hardly flinched. The ear was dead.”
The attention to detail is almost unfailing and at times beautifully so. In an early scene, June must leave her mortally wounded younger brother. He asks her “Will you come back for me?” She nods, and her brother says, “It’s okay. You don’t have to.” The scene concludes: “She let go his still warm hand, kissed his still warm face. She stayed with him as long as she could. But when the last car of the train passed her she rose to her feet and steadied herself. And then she ran for her life.”
These scenes, and many others like them, stay with the audience, even if we would rather forget. Moreover, there is literally no relief from the bleakness and heartache. Characters do experience momentary glimpses of happiness, but these moments usually end tragically: a potential love interest dies, a promise turns into a lie, an affair is found out. Every time a character allows a flicker of hope to shine, it is brutally stamped out, making the audience wonder if these characters would have been happier never knowing hope. The story is powerful, and the plot intricate and thoughtful, but at times, there is a reluctance to turn the page because of what new devastation might be lurking.
Yet this is what a story about war should do. All too often, in both film and literature, war is somehow glamorized or turned into entertainment. Or perhaps even worse, the violence and brutality is forgotten because of a flashy victory scene or because the characters manage to survive and thrive in their postwar worlds, easily putting the past behind them. This book does none of these things, and it doesn’t soften at the end, as so many works tend to do. The despair is unrelenting from page one until the book closes.
For much of the book, all the characters can wish for is death. Toward the end of her time at the orphanage, June thinks back to the deaths of her siblings and wonders:
Since that night she had often wondered if it would have been better to wait for the next one [train], or to have taken their chances on foot, or else steered the twins and herself far off the main road without any provisions and simply waited for the merciful night that would lift them away forever. The twins would not have suffered and she would not be here now. For what had surviving all these days since gotten her, save a quelled belly?
Only when June is hours away from death does she seem to recognize the value of life. She screams at Hector: “‘I don’t want this!’ she shouted back, slapping at her own shriveled wasted thighs. Her face was a cracked, broken mask. ‘Not this! Maybe you wouldn’t care if this were happening to you! Maybe you never cared if you lived or not. But I do!’” By this point, of course, it is too late.
Overall, this is a masterfully told story and one with few flaws. Perhaps two minor characters are disposed of too conveniently midway through the book. The more recent parts of Hector’s story might be told a little more quickly and without so many subplots. The romantic troubles of Hector’s boss just don’t seem that important, and while well told, the chapters dedicated to Hector’s life as a janitor in New Jersey just don’t have the same intensity as the scenes from Korea. On the other hand, I wanted to know more about June’s life after the orphanage. This is also a book that should be picked up with care—the violence in this book is real; it is not some cartooned or fantastical violence that is easily dismissed or forgotten.
In truth, very little in this book is forgettable. The Surrendered is a meaningful, moving story. It left me quiet and saddened, with a mental image of a young Korean girl who just wanted the things most want: someone to love and a place to belong.