Chang-Rae Lee may have written the feel-bad novel of the year. The author of “A Gesture Life” and “Aloft” has already proven himself a literary force to be reckoned with, but he’s ratcheted things up a notch with his epic of grief and survival, The Surrendered.
Toggling between 1950s Korea and New York and Italy in 1986, “The Surrendered” tells the story of June, an orphan who lost her entire family during the Korean War; Hector, an American soldier; and Sylvie, a missionary’s wife who runs the orphanage where June finds refuge. Something then goes terribly wrong at the New Hope orphanage.
In 1986, June is a New York antiques dealer who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to find her grown son before she dies, Hector is a janitor and semifunctional alcoholic, whom June is determined to drag with her on her quest, and Sylvie is dead.
June and Hector haven’t seen each other since the marriage of convenience that got June into the United States. And neither is comfortable in the other’s presence, given certain survival instincts and the circumstances surrounding Sylvie’s death.
All three main characters are shaped by unendurable losses, although they all endure. Hector proves especially physically resilient – he shrugs off life-threatening injuries with an ease that depresses him. Even decades of alcohol abuse can’t put a dent in his glowing good looks. (The parallels with Achilles get pounded home.) “His, it could be supposed, was the sentence of persistence.”
June, before her diagnosis, also radiated health and vitality; and Sylvie’s golden beauty attracted everyone who saw her. Sylvie grew up the only child of two aid workers in the 1920s and ’30s. “She remembered her father telling her ... how this world was littered with those cut off in mid-bloom, all this wasted beauty and grace, and that it was their humble task to gather as many as they could and replant them. It didn’t matter that they were stomped and torn. That the soil was rocky and poor.... She was sure this was true of the children. But what of a person like her? Could one ever reroot her own long-trampled self?”
Lee is not one for comforting platitudes. In the battle against death and chaos, Hector thinks, “Love was the prime defiance, of course, most every story told of that, though well short of love there was the simple law of association, just nearness and contact....” Is that enough consolation, the novel asks, in the face of the loss of everyone you love? (In fact, Lee goes overboard with the casualty list: There are two deaths near the end that seem piled on unnecessarily.)
In the first 30 pages, June loses both parents and all of her siblings in a variety of heartbreaking ways. (The beginning actually works as a great test case as to whether “The Surrendered” belongs on your reading pile.) As an adult, June reflects on the dogged tenacity that kept her alive as a starving child: “even though she held no illusions of being an admirable person, she had always been capable of making her way, no matter what.”
Hector’s life is shaped by guilt over his dad’s death, and the torture he fails to stop as a soldier doesn’t help his mental well-being. He takes a job digging graves, so that he doesn’t have to witness any more pain, and after the war ends up as a handyman at New Hope orphanage.
Sylvie’s secrets date to an earlier era and are even more horrifying. The cumulative weight of tragedies is enough to make it seem as if the characters in “King Lear” were merely having an off week.
Lee delineates, in thoughtful detail, the emotional toll survival has on his characters. (His depiction goes beyond the usual pop psychology checklist of survivor’s guilt.) In addition to Homer, Lee weaves in references to the battle of Solferino in Italy, quoting extensively from an account by an eyewitness to that tragedy.
The doctor treating June argues that survival itself is admirable: “We cheat time, June, all of us, where we’re ill or not.... And I don’t want to hear about ‘quality of life’ or some such. Life is quality of life. If you can take nourishment and communicate and conceive of tomorrow, then another day is riches enough.”
But for Lee’s characters, surviving at any cost has left them with a terrible question: Was it really worth it?
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.