Friday, May 2, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

I decided to post about Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered for this week, because next week I will be covering his most recent book, On Such a Full Sea. Thankfully, such a thing is made so much easier when one of the books can be found on the shelves of the UTSA library. Makes discovering new authors that much easier (and cheaper).

The Situation: As her health is in a steady decline and she knows she won't be around for much longer, June decides she wants to locate her son, Nicholas, who had left years before to roam Europe. At first Nicholas sent letters and post cards. But as time went on, the letters became shorter and the correspondence was less frequent. Now Nicholas barely writes at all, and seemingly only to ask for money, which June is more than willing to send. But now that she has decided to end her cancer treatment, sell her home and her antique shop, she is going to hunt down Nicholas herself. But she knows, even with all of the money she has, that she can't do it alone. So she not only employs the help of a private investigator, who was the one who let her know that Nicholas was in Italy, but she also wants her son's father to come along too. 

The Problem: It has been a good 30 years since June has seen Nicholas' father, and she knows he would rather have nothing to do with her or their son. In fact, she had already sent the private investigator to approach Hector, but he was unsuccessful. While both June and Hector have their own haunted past separate from each other, their shared past isn't much better. As an orphan of the Korean War, a half-starved June stumbled upon the orphanage that Hector worked for after his stint in the armed forces. They cared little for each other, but both had an intense interest in the wife of the missionary couple that came to run the orphanage up until it was destroyed in a tragic fire. Both June and Hector lost the only thing they cared for, and have avoided each other ever since. But now, June is a desperate and dying woman, and seeks the help of the one person who most likely wants nothing to do with her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the Korean War, as June and her family are forced to flee their home and the dangers that have befallen their country. June eventually ends up in one of many Korean orphanages, waiting with the other children to be adopted out by an American family and taken to the states. Through June, Hector, and Sylvie, one half of the missionary couple that came to run the orphanage June stays at, the reader is given a picture of the effects that the brutality of war can have on a person, and also on how that person treats others. June experienced war by watching her home and family be destroyed. Hector was a soldier and had direct dealings with the dead and dying. Sylvie grew up as a missionary kid, moving from country to country with her parents as they worked in some of the most desperate places on earth. She would eventually (*spoiler alert*) end up an orphan herself, and turn to addiction as a way to cope. These are essentially three hurt and broken people attempting to make the best of a bad situation, and failing terribly. Thirty years later, June has made a life for herself, only to end up with stomach cancer, and Hector is still coping in his own way with his own miserable existence. But the book is also about reconciliation and the healing that can come from facing your demons, despite how that process can seem worse than the initial pain.

My Verdict: I have seen reviews from other readers refer to The Surrendered as a "departure" for Lee. I'm actually not quite sure how I feel about it since so much of the story is so hopeless and I have a hard time liking anyone in it, despite the fact that what has happened to them and what has caused them to be how they are now is not in the least their own fault. But a lot of what they do is just so awful. And for me, the ending just doesn't offer much in the way of resolution, but maybe that is the point. At the very least it is an interesting story and there is some real concern for the characters, no matter how many times they screw up or set up their own demise. Maybe after I read On Such a Full Sea, I'll have a better handle on Lee's writing and be able to offer a better verdict.

Favorite Moment: When given the task of shooting an informant who had endangered the entire group, Sylvie's father decides to show mercy to the man instead, even though that may mean certain death for the rest of them. He refuses to let the Japanese soldiers turn him into a murderer.

Favorite Character: This is really hard because, like I said, it is difficult to like any of these people. I suppose my favorite would be Ames Tanner, Sylvie's husband. He has his own flaws, and is pretty blind to what is going on with his wife, but he seems genuine in his concern for both her and the orphanage. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend checking out Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It is also a historical fiction novel, but set during the Chechnya War, however many of the themes are similar. The book was also longlisted for the National Book Award, and awarded the inaugural John Leonard Prize given by the National Book Critics Circle.

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