There’s an image buried late in Chang-Rae Lee’s unflinching narrative, The Surrendered, that connects two of the writer’s three main characters and encapsulates not only the tension of this brilliant novel but the lives of virtually all of the characters, whether they are major or minor ones: “What was there, really, to be concerned about now? 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.” That chute is almost ubiquitous throughout the entire story: the brief moment of serenity, happiness, even pleasure and then the terribly brutal incident that follows. It’s easy to call Lee the darkest pessimist in our midst but his extraordinary novel is also filled with unforgettable moments of redemption and luminescence. No surprise, for Lee is a master of the narrative form as his three earlier novels have already shown us.
By the time we reach that image of the barrel heading toward the waterfall, we are well on our way toward the resolution of Lee’s tangled story. Along with Hector, the man who was her husband briefly years ago, June flies to Italy in order to track down their missing son, Nicholas. This is no simple search for a wayward child. First, Nicholas has been gone for eight years—mostly in Europe—sending an occasional postcard to his mother but just as often wiring her with a request for money. She’s always given in to these appeals, even though the amounts are increasingly excessive and they don’t metamorphose into better communication between the two of them. It’s clear to the reader, but not so much to June, that Nicholas wants nothing to do with her and only uses her as his own personal ATM machine. The reasons for the stultifying mother/son relationship will eventually be made clear, through a number of surprising revelations.
Hector has plenty of his own demons to live with. He married June in Korea shortly after the Korean war. The two of them originally met on the road together. She was still a teenager, while Hector, perhaps ten years older, stayed on in the country after fighting for the American forces. They both ended up at an orphanage, where Hector became the handyman for a couple of American missionaries who ran the place and June became the oldest orphan. Much, much later, when the two of them search for Nicholas in Italy, it’s with great reluctance from Hector who has only weeks earlier learned that Nicholas is his son.
Why does Hector agree to go with June in search of their son? It isn’t Hector’s newly-discovered fatherhood. Lee notes of him, “He had never come close to wanting children of his own and had no feelings either way for Nicholas.” Hector has lived a life thinking only of himself. His brief marriage to June all those years ago was solely in order to facilitate her American citizenship. He’s never committed to any woman, though he’s known dozens of them—used them for his selfish needs. But Hector has a wisp of a realization when June suddenly reappears in his life twenty-five or so years later that he’s poisoned all of the relationships he’s been a part of: “he was the cause, and the symptom, and the disease; he was the dooming factor for everyone but himself.” Too many other people have paid a price for being involved with him.
There’s a third equally important character in this carefully orchestrated story: Sylvie, who along with her husband, Tanner, ran the orphanage where Hector and June arrived quite accidentally together. Sylvie’s parents were missionaries in Manchuria, in 1934, well before the Korean War. The horrors she observed from the Japanese occupation were enough to maim one forever, yet much later, she married another missionary and they took off for Korea. Both her parents and her husband are genuinely decent people, “gypsies of mercy,” committing their lives to the downtrodden and the afflicted with no attempt to convert anyone to Christianity. And, yet, unbearable cruelty enters all of their lives.
It’s easy to assume that I have told too much of the story, but I assure you that I have not. I’ve sketched the barest outline of the disturbingly intertwined relationships of these three main characters who suffer quite literally from post traumatic syndrome. That is the price, Lee tells us, of being the innocent bystander or witness during times of war. Yes, two wars are described in this novel but only indirectly. There are no battle scenes, no marching armies. Rather, only lost souls who spend the rest of their lives trying to do good but generally messing up the lives of still other innocent people.
The Surrendered is a haunting novel—often impossible to put down in spite of the cruelty that runs through the narrative like an inescapable affliction. Change-Rae Lee is one of our country’s greatest living novelists, additional proof—in case you needed it—of the enormous contribution that immigrants have made to America.
By Chang-Ra Lee
Riverhead, 469 pp., $26.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.