The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

April 10, 2010

What happens to life after you survive the atrocities and randomness of war? Chang-rae Lee examines the deep intricacies of this question and its ramifications in THE SURRENDERED, portraying three survivors (Korean War, China-Japan War) whose lives mesh at an orphanage somewhere in South Korea after liberation. From that common crossroad, the lives of Sylvie, a missionary wife, Hector, a G.I., and June, a Korean orphan, are forever intertwined, shadowed by pervasive doom pitted against the human need to endure.

Lee’s strength has always been with his exceptional prose—the constantly surprising and original use he puts to words—and a sheer magnificence in the way those mere words rise up to deliver stunning revelations of simple truths in what makes us human. This book is rich in that tradition. I have tagged more than one hundred sections that moved me to wonderment. It’s also probably the most physical and sensory book I have ever read, especially redolent in smells. There’s a lot of sex and vivid description of sensation, and Lee’s intense focus on physicality in itself seems to reflect the characters’ bodily will to continue life, even as their hearts are blackened by tragedy.

It is an intense and absorbing read, frightening for what we do to ourselves and how, despite all the darkness and violence we create in the name of war, some continue to persist in a semblance of life, and helplessly pass along the damage of war to those they touch as they reach out with a last shred of hopefulness. Is it all in vain? That’s the question Lee poses in this masterpiece of writing.

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