The Surrendered

Lee, Chang-rae

Published by Riverhead Books, 2010
ISBN 10: 1594489769 / ISBN 13: 9781594489761
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Synopsis: Read an essay by Chang-rae Lee here.

The bestselling, award-winning writer of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft returns with his biggest, most ambitious novel yet: a spellbinding story of how love and war echo through an entire lifetime.

With his three critically acclaimed novels, Chang-rae Lee has established himself as one of the most talented writers of contemporary literary fiction. Now, with The Surrendered, Lee has created a book that amplifies everything we've seen in his previous works, and reads like nothing else. It is a brilliant, haunting, heartbreaking story about how love and war inalterably change the lives of those they touch.

June Han was only a girl when the Korean War left her orphaned; Hector Brennan was a young GI who fled the petty tragedies of his small town to serve his country. When the war ended, their lives collided at a Korean orphanage where they vied for the attentions of Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful yet deeply damaged missionary wife whose elusive love seemed to transform everything. Thirty years later and on the other side of the world, June and Hector are reunited in a plot that will force them to come to terms with the mysterious secrets of their past, and the shocking acts of love and violence that bind them together.

As Lee unfurls the stunning story of June, Hector, and Sylvie, he weaves a profound meditation on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the power of love, and the possibilities for mercy, salvation, and surrendering oneself to another. Combining the complex themes of identity and belonging of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life with the broad range, energy, and pure storytelling gifts of Aloft, Chang-rae Lee has delivered his most ambitious, exciting, and unforgettable work yet. It is a mesmeriz­ing novel, elegantly suspenseful and deeply affecting.

Review: Amazon Exclusive: Chang-Rae Lee on The Surrendered

The inspiration for The Surrendered has its roots in a project I worked on more than twenty years ago, while I was still in college. I was taking a seminar on modern Korean history, and I decided that I would conduct an interview with my father to fulfill the writing assignment, conceiving a reporter-at-large-type piece that would offer personal testimony and narrative set against a historical backdrop. I wasn't sure if he would agree. My father was twelve years old on the eve of the Korean War, and although over the years I had asked him a number of times about his experiences, his responses were typically vague and hurried; he never seemed to want to talk about that time, only briefly mentioning that his sister had died during the war from an untreated bout of pneumonia. But since I was taking a course with a special focus on Korea, he agreed to speak in more detail about that period.

My father's family was originally from Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, and they had joined the throngs of refugees who were heading south in an attempt to get behind the line of American forces. He first recounted a story about his favorite older cousin, who was pregnant and just about to give birth as the rest of the extended family was frantically packing up and leaving. My father was dispatched to tell his cousin that everyone was departing—explosions could be heard in the distance—yet even though she and her husband desperately wanted to go, she had already started her labors. She couldn’t be moved. Everybody soon left, and that was last time the cousin and her husband were seen alive; to this day no one knows what happened to them, whether they perished or survived the war and ended up living in North Korea.

Telling that story of his cousin seemed to break the grip of something on my father. He recounted again that his sister had died of pneumonia during the refugee march, then added, casually, that in fact his younger brother had died during their travels, too. This disclosure surprised me. I knew that he had lost a brother, this from asking him, as children often will, about how many siblings he had, matching the number against my uncles and aunts, but I remembered his saying that his brother had died in a "subway accident." I didn't think there was a subway in either Pyongyang or Seoul during his childhood, so I asked him when his brother had died, and how.

My father told me that in fact his brother had been killed not by a subway car but by a boxcar of a train full of refugees. They were among the hundreds who filled the cars. The car holding the rest of their family was packed tight, so he and his brother had to sleep on top of the boxcar. In the middle of the night the train halted violently, and his brother, who was eight years old, fell off, the train then lurching forward for a short distance. My father jumped down and went back and found his brother, whose leg had been amputated by the wheels of the train. My father carried him back to the car, to the rest of their family, as the blood—and his life—ran out of him.

I've been haunted by that story since I heard it, not only by the horror of the accident but also by the picture of my father as a boy, a boy who had to experience his brother's death so directly and egregiously. I was struck, too, by how unperturbed my father had always seemed to me, this cheerful, optimistic man who certainly didn't appear to be haunted by anything. But of course this was not quite true. The events of the war had stayed with him, and always would.

In recent years I began to consider writing a novel about that time, and what happened to my father and his brother kept coming back to me. I finally decided to try to write that scene, wondering whether a larger story might be instituted. Naturally the details changed quite drastically as I began to write, the story expanding in every direction, developing its own world and aims, and soon enough it was not my father's story at all. But the kernel of what had happened grew to become the first chapter of The Surrendered, which for me is not so much a war novel as it is a story concerned with the effects of mass conflict on the human psyche and spirit, the private odysseys that those who have experienced conflict must endure.

(Photo of Chang-Rae Lee © David Burnett)


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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Surrendered
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: 2010
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Fine
Edition: First Edition.

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