The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

Another of my favorite authors, Lee writes about silent and detached men, left isolated by their disconnection from their past. In this, his most recent and most harrowing book, Lee gives us three characters who draw us deeply into their lives, their hurts and small triumphs, their pasts. June is a middle-aged Korean antiques dealer, near death from stomach cancer and searching for her estranged son. Hector, who worked in the Graves Unit during the Korean War, is a janitor in a New Jersey mini-mall and spends his free time propping up a bar. Sylvie is the missionary’s wife whose fragile beauty illuminates the orphanage where June landed after the war and where Hector worked.

Lee gives us plenty of warning that their stories will twist around each other and their fates depend on each other as much as in any classical tragedy. June hires a private investigator to find her son, sharing with him the sprinkling of postcards that show he’s still alive in Europe somewhere. The PI asks her if she really wants to find him, saying, “‘Sometimes people think they want something when in fact they don’t.'” He first finds Hector, the man who rescued June during the war as, starved almost to delirium, she follows him to the orphanage. Hector has his own demons, as does Sylvie who comes with her husband to run the place. All the children love her and vie to be the one adopted, but none more than June. Sensing the traumas behind June’s stoic manner, Sylvie spends extra time with her and allows her free run of the bungalow. The question, though, becomes whether giving in to such benevolent impulses is ultimately helpful.

We all want to be good. We want to be heroic. We’d like to think that we’d jump in the river to rescue a child, go into a burning building to save a baby. But in reality we are—most of us—paralysed in that first moment and then subject to the temptation to avert our eyes and move on. When I first read the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in college, I was deeply affected by their predicament. It’s a terrifying thought that there is only one decisive moment when you can step up or step aside. These days I understand that there can be many such moments, large and small, in a lifetime. What Lee brings home to me in this book, though, is that the guilt of turning aside at a critical moment can twist your life and haunt you forever.

All of these people are damaged, as I suppose we all are to some extent. As Lee describes a man Sylvie knew during college: “Jim was gentle and soft-spoken and obviously bighearted, but there was something ruined about him and it was this that she always saw in his face when he opened the alley door, his expression pleased but with the shattered eyes of a man who could see perhaps only the drenching sadness in beauty.” Understanding their pasts and the burden of guilt they carry, we can begin to understand who they are now and why they behave as they do. In thinking about the significance of the title, I was reminded of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, a massive novel structured by dream logic that I found difficult to read. The two books couldn’t be more different except that, just as in Ishiguro’s book a character can go through a door and find himself in an entirely different part of town, so here the characters encounter unexpected minefields in each other, booby traps laid down years before by their own particular and horrific experiences, forgotten perhaps, unmapped, but still armed and lethal.

I found this book difficult to read because of the moving evocations of “the horrors of war and the sorrows of survival”, as Terrence Rafferty said in his review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the hunger and thirst that drove June to eat the stinking mud of the ricefields, the ripping away of her family one-by-one. What is ultimately explored here is the thirst for connection, denied, ignored, surrendered to. Perhaps it is the being there at the end that matters most.

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