Sunday, April 4, 2010

Chang-Rae Lee/THE SURRENDERED

The Korean War ended in 1953, but its repercussions continued to ruin lives for years--in some cases, decades. A ten-year-old girl named June lost her entire family, one piece at a time, before ending up at a Christian orphanage run by an American couple. Hector, an American soldier, decided to stay on in Korea because he had nothing to go home to, and so helps out at the orphanage while sinking into alcoholism. June and Hector are only two of the many lonely and psychologically scarred war survivors thrown into unwilling company at the orphanage, and thirty years later, when June tries to track Hector down once again, the psychological scars are bared.

The Surrendered covers the sad territory of Asia in the mid-twentieth century, from the invasion of Manchuria through the Korean War. Most of the book, however, takes place either at the orphanage during the three years following the ceasefire, when the Tanners, the American couple, are trying to decide how best to save the children while saving their own marriage, and in 1986, as the survivors of the plot are forced toward each other again.

I read this book because I love Lee's Gesture Life, a novel of an ethnically Korean man fighting for the Japanese during World War II, and his encounter with kidnapped Korean "comfort women." I love that Lee's popularity has succeeded in bringing some attention to Korean history--incredibly tightly intertwined with American history, and often overlooked or completely ignored. I admit I did not love The Surrendered as I'd hoped I would. I found it both overly chatty and ultimately emotionally unresolved. But I liked it, and am certainly glad I gave it a read.

2 comments:

Cheryl said...

Sounds interesting. I read A GESTURE LIFE and thought it was pretty compelling, although the narrator was so cold and distant (for understandable reasons). Is the narrator of this story, or the main character at least, more likable or emotive?

moonrat said...

Emotive, definitely. This doesn't have the same psychological/unreliable narrator component that GESTURE LIFE did, in my opinion--much more straightforward. The narrative is also very closely told--it's third person, but you're THERE.

Likable, perhaps. There are three narrators--June, Hector, and Sylvie Tanner--and each of them is deeply flawed/scarred and so rather reactive. But I think they're basically all good, emotional people.

Now all that said, I LOVED G.L. Like, cried like a baby for a long time, and still remember the whole book vividly six years after I read it. I didn't react that way to THE SURRENDERED, but I have read a lot of reviews since I posted this and it seems everyone else has (without any equivocations). So perhaps this book has more appealing elements to more people.

Let me know if you end up reading it!