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Ravages of Korean War told in new Chang Rae Lee novel

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 The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee, Riverhead Books ( a division of Putnam), New York 2010, 469 pages, ISBN 978-1-59448-976-1, $26.95.

By Gail Feinstein Forman

Gail Feinstein Forman

SAN DIEGO–The Surrendered is award-winning author Chang Rae Lee’s newest novel. It’s a sensitively rendered epic reminiscent of Greek tragedies. Characters are at once swept away by life or passionately engulfed by it, rarely choosing their own fates.

The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks that go back through 1930’s China, the 1950s Korean War and end in Solferino, Italy and New York in 1986.

We first meet June Han, the first of the three key protagonists in 1950 Korea, where orphaned by the Korean War, she experienced first-hand the atrocities rained down both sides on ordinary citizens. Her parents had been missionaries who infused June with a sense of righteousness and dignity. She later witnessed the deaths and humiliation of her parents and siblings and luckily found her way to a Korean orphanage where she remained until her late teens.

June approached life with an ornery nature, stubborn and resolute in her desires, traits that anchored her as she moved through extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Through many twists and turns, she later finds herself in New York City as a proprietor of a small antique shop.

While at the orphanage, June developed an intimate relationship with Sylvia Tanner, the wife of the reverend who ran the orphanage. Like June, Sylvie, as she was called, came from a family of missionaries who had experienced the best and worst of wartime experiences,

It was through her interactions with Sylvie that June  develops the adolescent pangs of love and a blossoming of deep desires. Never wanting to sever her relationship with Sylvie, June fantasized that the Tanners would adopt her and bring her back to the States.

Sylvie worked along with her husband at the orphanage and with her great generosity, garnered the love of all the children easily.

Though Sylvie’s appearance was stately and competent, her unmet desires and yearning for connection exposed her vulnerability, which became her fatal flaw- echoing the familiar refrain of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empirtus that “the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

The third protagonist, intrinsically linked with the other two main characters, was Hector Brenner, an injured Korean War veteran who became a handyman at the orphanage.

Throughout his life, Hector devalued himself, and had no ambition to go beyond the momentary fulfillment of physical desires. Instead, he reported a penchant for “self-erasure”, becoming part of the surrounding environs, an invisible clog in a wheel.

He too, is indelibly stamped with the mark of the ancient Greeks. He came from Ilion, New York, home of Remington Arms. And like his namesake Hector in the Iliad, he eluded fatal injuries even in the most precarious circumstances and was destined for one great noble act.

At the orphanage, Hector and Sylvie embarked on a wild, frenetic affair, one that Hector believed would continue, but Sylvie knew could not.

As the days of the Korean War wane and the Reverend and Sylvie Tanner plan their return to the Sates, a tragic orphange fire changes the fates of all the main characters. Both Hector and June depart for New York, their destinies intertwined throughout the rest of the book, though for many years, they had no contact and led separate lives.

They meet again in 1986, as June prepared to close her antique shop. She had hired a private investigator to locate her wayward son and the investigator had placed him in Solferino, Italy, the last time June had heard from him.

For reasons at first unknown by Hector, June enlists Hector to accompany her on this trip. She is putting things in order as she is in the final stages of stomach cancer, and unknown to Hector, he will be visiting his son, the boy conceived by June on their first and final day that they arrived in New York many years before.

Hector reluctantly agrees to the trip, and both are propelled toward their individual redemption, similar to the Iliad, where completing a long journey brings them home again.

Lee, who is currently the director of Princeton’s creative writing program, writes with a lyrical quality that infuses even the most mundane elements of daily life with near sacredness. His scenes of the atrocities of war, though difficult to read, are depicted with pinpoint accuracy.

 His characters, as they unwittingly carry the weight of each other, evolve slowly with great meticulousness.

In a recent interview, he describes a piece of good writing as “a spark of emotional truth.”

There is no sugarcoating of either the characters or the events they experience, but he brings a subtlety and wisdom to what he portrays.

In 1999, The New Yorker listed Lee as one of the twenty best novelists under forty in America. His previous three books, Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft all won prestigious literary awards.

This is not an easy read, but a compelling one that offers a masterfully, insightful view of characters driven by the force of history.

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Gail Feinstein Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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