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4.20.2010

what I'm reading: the surrendered by chang-rae lee


I'm currently in the middle of reading The Surrendered, the latest novel by Chang-rae Lee, and it's kicking my ass. I've been a fan of the author's for years (Native Speaker was one of the first works of Asian American literature I ever read), and based on what I've read so far, this is easily his best work yet.

Epic and ambitious, it's a horrifying yet poetic tale about the consquences of war, with haunting, mesmerizing immediacy that sort of slaps you in the face from the very first passage. Here's the official blurb from the publisher:
The bestselling, award-winning writer of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft returns with his biggest, most ambitious novel yet: a spellbinding story of how love and war echo through an entire lifetime.

With his three critically acclaimed novels, Chang-rae Lee has established himself as one of the most talented writers of contemporary literary fiction. Now, with The Surrendered, Lee has created a book that amplifies everything we've seen in his previous works, and reads like nothing else. It is a brilliant, haunting, heartbreaking story about how love and war inalterably change the lives of those they touch.

June Han was only a girl when the Korean War left her orphaned; Hector Brennan was a young GI who fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ended, their lives collided at a Korean orphanage where they vied for the attentions of Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful yet deeply damaged missionary wife whose elusive love seemed to transform everything. Thirty years later and on the other side of the world, June and Hector are reunited in a plot that will force them to come to terms with the mysterious secrets of their past, and the shocking acts of love and violence that bind them together.

As Lee unfurls the stunning story of June, Hector, and Sylvie, he weaves a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy, salvation, and surrendering oneself to another. Combining the complex themes of identity and belonging of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life with the broad range, energy, and pure storytelling gifts of Aloft, Chang-rae Lee has delivered his most ambitious, exciting, and unforgettable work yet. It is a mesmerizing novel, elegantly suspenseful and deeply affecting.
War is hell, and the Korean War is the hell everyone seems to know the least about, or just simply cared to forget. Lee is an amazing writer, and crafts an almost too-vivid picture of the cruelty and horror of this conflict. Again, I'm only partway through the book, but so far, it's heartbreaking. But there is an indication of hope and healing to come.

Here's an essay by Chang-Rae Lee on the Penguin website, explaining the fascinating family inspiration behind The Surrendered: Author Essay by Chang-rae Lee. And here's the (mostly favorable) New York Times book review: Lives Scarred by Horrors of Korean War. The book has been out for about a month. You can get it at bookstores everywhere. I won't tell you how it ends.