Chang-rae Lee, the New York Times bestselling, prize winning author of Aloft, A Gesture Life, and Native Speaker – has built a dazzling reputation as an original writer, a spellbinding master craftsman, according to leading critics, who often call his work poignant, engrossing and spectacular. Now, Lee delivers a novel that is broader in scope and theme – and even more compelling, powerful, and haunting – than any of his previous works with The Surrendered (Riverhead Books). A harrowing tale of the lasting effects of war that moves from Korea in the 1950s to China in the 1930s to New York City and Italy in the 1980s, Lee’s fourth novel is equally an intensely moving exploration of the transcendent forces of love and art, and ultimately a heartening, bitterly won affirmation of life.Chang will be at the Edina Barns & Noble on March 23, 7:00 p.m. for a reading and to sign the books.
At the start of the Korean War, June Han is eleven, a refugee on the road with her family, who are struggling to survive by evading the marauding forces of both North and South. Lee writes of her ordeal: “You could never anticipate what might happen next, the earth-shattering and the trivial interspersing with the cruelest irony. You could be saved by pure chance, or else ruined. That was the terror of it, what kept June half-awake at night and stole at her breath through the day, though it was the terror that was also forming her into her destined shape, feeding the being of her vigilance until it had grown into the whole of her, pushed out everything else.”
Hector Brennan, a preternaturally handsome, twenty-year-old American GI from upstate New York, was never supposed to go to war, although he was named after the Trojan hero of the Iliad. Like his namesake, Hector seems to be miraculously protected from harm, yet feels that he brings disaster to everyone he meets. As a boy, he had been enchanted by stories of “heroes who’d endured great trials and tendered unequaled sacrifices to their gods and peoples and thereby won the glory of everlasting fame. From the time he could read he’d devoured those stories of ancient Greece and Sparta and Peloponnesia, of Alexander and Charlemagne. Yet what was it he encountered in the book but descriptions of penury and degradation that took on an awesome, almost mythical beauty.. . .”
Appalled by what he has seen in combat and as part of a burial brigade, Hector leads June to an orphanage run by Ames and Sylvie Tanner, an American missionary couple. Marked forever by what she went through in China along with her missionary parents during the Japanese invasion that was a prelude to the Second World War, Sylvie “was exalted and flawed, someone who required as much grace and succor as she herself readily offered, someone both [Hector] and June desperately needed, a mother and a lover and a kind of child, too.”
Three decades later, after establishing a successful antiques business, June is dying of cancer in New York. She has only one final wish – to reestablish contact with her son, who has inexplicably broken off communication with her and disappeared in Europe. In desperation, she turns to Hector, although they have been estranged ever since the catastrophic events that destroyed the orphanage, in which they both played central roles. Together, they embark on a staggering journey of remembrance, revelation, and surrender that tests the limits of mercy, reconciliation, and salvation.
In an essay on the genesis of The Surrendered, Lee discloses that the opening scenes of the novel were inspired by an incident that actually happened to his father. Like June, Lee’s father was a refugee during the Korean War, who held his dying younger brother in his arms after the boy’s leg was amputated by the wheels of a train. Lee writes in his essay: “I’ve been haunted by that story since hearing it, not only by the horror of the accident but also 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 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.”
“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 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 those who’ve experienced conflict must endure.”
Chang-rae Lee is the author Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. He is also the recipient of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a NAIBA Book Award for Fiction, an Asian American Literary Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Oregon Book Sward, a Bames & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and QPB’s New Voices Award. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
Author Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead Books, $26.95
March 9, 2010