Book Review - Chang-rae Lee hits operatic notes in The Surrendered

Author appears at the Carter Library on March 25

Saturday March 20, 2010 11:00 am EDT

Chang-rae Lee's fourth novel is his "big" one. Epic, ambitious and expansive are the sort of words that tempt use when describing The Surrendered. But those vaguely flattering adjectives, the words that get tossed off too easily in back-cover blurbs, actually mean something specific about Lee's new book. The Surrendered is epic in terms of time: The novel shuttles within the confines of a half century, skipping as far back as the 1930s and forward into 1980s. Characters are ambitiously woven together – an American GI, a Korean orphan, and a Christian missionary become vividly entwined. Finally, The Surrendered is geographically expansive, traversing three continents as the characters move from China and Korea to New York City and Italy.

All this bears mentioning because it represents a significant shift from Lee's much lauded style. His first three novels were all narrated from the perspective of a single immigrant character in New York. Native Speaker, Lee's PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award-winning debut, explored New York City through the eyes of Korean-American Henry Park. When Lee's writing did travel to different places or times – his second novel, A Gesture Life, momentarily shifted to the Japanese occupation of Burma in the 1940s – it was always within the frame of memory and limitations of a single perspective still in New York.

The Surrendered trades that singular voice for third-person narration. The book occasionally slips into the thoughts and memories of individual characters, but never fully immerses itself, always maintaining the careful distance of a traditional novel.

Beginning in the first year of the Korean War, The Surrendered follows young June Han. June is barely surviving the carnage as it erupts around her: "You could never anticipate what might happen next, the earth-shattering and the trivial interspersed with the cruelest irony. You could be saved by pure chance, or else ruined. That was the terror of it, what kept June awake at night and stole her breath through the day."

As the war wraps up in 1953, Hector Brennan, an American GI, stays in Korea to work at an orphanage run by Christian missionaries Ames and Sylvie Tanner. In Hector's estimation, Sylvie possesses a remarkable beauty: "He couldn't help but pause, as everyone did, whenever he caught a glimpse of Sylvie Tanner, her hair as it fell against the grave paleness of her shoulders glowing as vibrantly as anything he had seen since being in this desolated country." Sylvie is distant, though, still suffering from the trauma of losing her parents as a child. After June sees her family killed during the war, Hector brings her to the orphanage, forever intertwining the three characters' lives.

Initially, it may seem as though Lee's abandoned the themes of immigration to write a war novel. But The Surrendered is more about the legacies of war than the acts of it. The events surrounding the Korean War follow June and Hector to New York decades later, inarguably shaping and crippling their lives. The slow fallout of war and the immigrant's struggle become artfully laced together here.

Lee is, unfortunately, prone to making observations about life in overwrought or melodramatic phrasing: "It was just the two of them from here on in, a pair of souls in a barrel floating down the last stretch of the river, twirling in one of the quieter eddies before being drawn into the chute toward the falls." If Lee's earlier novels were monologues, one-man plays you might catch off-Broadway, The Surrendered is his attempt at opera.

Even with some garish sentences and theatrical plotting, Lee creates fascinating characters with real depth. It may not be his finest moment, but The Surrendered still impresses with its emotional power.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee. Riverhead Books. $26.95. 470 pp.

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