In “The Surrendered,” Chang-Rae Lee examines the ruinous effects of the Korean War on two survivors: a child, June, who loses her entire family in the flight of civilian refugees southward down the Korean peninsula, and, an American soldier, Hector Brennan, caught in the same retreat.
“The journey was nearly over,” the book begins; a curious start for a long novel that is more about endurance than endings. During this first chapter, we’re introduced to June Han, a complicated personality who we first meet as June Han is a starving 11-year-old refugee fleeing military combat during the Korean War when she is separated from her seven-year-old twin siblings. By the time the book really is over, we will have come to understand June’s “diamond hard” character so completely that she’ll seem more real than some people we know. Eventually brought to an orphanage near Seoul by American soldier Hector Brennan, who is still reeling from his father’s death, June slowly recovers from her nightmarish experiences thanks to the loving attention of Sylvie Tanner, the wife of the orphanage’s minister. The three form a bizarre triad with Sylvie as the lovely but damaged object of both June’s and Hector’s affections.
These three wayfarers’ journeys first overlap in 1953, just after the end of the war, in a makeshift orphanage in the South Korean countryside not far from Seoul. The action swerves back and forth among 1930s China, 1950s Korea and New York City in 1986, when June, battling stomach cancer at age 47, is shuttering her successful Manhattan antiques shop and preparing for yet another journey. With her illness closing in on her, June plans to fly to Italy for a final reunion with her son, Nicholas, whom she raised alone while stoically building her business. Nicholas departed hastily for Europe after his high school graduation eight years ago and has contacted his mother only for money since. For thorny reasons, June decides she must enlist the help of Hector, whom she hasn’t seen in decades to help her find Nicholas and convince him to come back home.
Author Chang-Rae Lee’s handling of the back-stories is extraordinary. The opening sequence with June fleeing South is gripping; Hector’s adolescence in upstate New York looking after his bar-brawling father is merely ok, but his encounter with a young Korean prisoner is riveting; and Sylvie’s violent introduction to love and betrayal is incandescent, far and away the strongest chapter in the book. Moving forward, the scenes in the mission, interspersed throughout the book, are generally well told. However, the scenes set in the 80s seem flat. The main problem with the book is that compared to June, Hector and Sylvie are just not as compelling. Sylvie, despite her harrowing childhood, congeals into a cliché, a tarnished beauty from some lesser-known Maugham story who speaks in stiff, romance-novel sentences. And Hector has only one note from the beginning. Named after the epic hero, his only miraculous quality seems to be that his liver has somehow managed to remain intact after decades of compulsive drinking. Contrast this with June, who blazes with obstinate life at every point of her journey: on a Korean road southward as a refugee child, where she ate mud to keep from dying of thirst; decades later in her oncologist’s office, where she wrests control of her cancer treatment; and in the book’s final scenes in Italy, where even here, hazy with morphine, she insists on stumbling forward. There isn’t an ounce of charm in June, but her relentlessness always feels genuine.
In tracing the long-term effects of warfare, Chang-Rae Lee has a powerful theme. But it is difficult to maintain interest in damaged characters who, even through no fault of their own, are only half functioning as human beings. Sylvie is addicted to drugs; Hector is a compulsive drinker; June is so far gone in her sickness that her actions are unpredictable, and even in the orphanage it appears that her moral compass is damaged or missing. They are all half-people at best. Although we sympathize with their tragedy, and even discern glimmers of goodness among the psychic rubble, they make poor companions on a long journey to a place that is not very meaningful anyway.