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Surrendering To The Surrendered

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 12, 2010 10:10PM

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
The opening sentence of Chang-Rae Lee's newest novel The Surrendered is one that sticks. "The journey was nearly over," the book starts. But that's page one, and The Surrendered has 468 more of them. There is a complex story to follow, and Lee is doing us a favor by making sure we get the big picture first. As he carries readers through passages describing the jumbled psychological, physical, and sometimes teeth-clenching direct effects the Korean War has had on his main characters, these first few words echo throughout.

The story is straightforward. American soldier Hector, Korean orphan June, and American missionary Sylvie are united by their time spent in an orphanage erected after the war. The plot focuses on what got them there and where they will head afterwards. The Surrendered jumps forwards and backwards in time and gives us extended snapshots of the characters' past and future lives and travels. Lee gives us locations and dates before each shift, so that's not hard to follow either.

The characters bring the complexity. Throughout the book, Lee challenges us to understand the relationships and motivations of these three people. How can Sylvie have slipped into addiction when she seems so filled with radiance and hope? Why is the adult June so determined to push beyond the limitations of her dying body? What does Hector intend to gain from accompanying June on her quest to find her son? Lee gives us hints, but we're entirely on our own to figure out what drives these characters in their separate but related journeys. Likewise, Hector, June and Sylvie seek separate but related gratification from their intertwined relationship. And while it's easy to understand why these characters would crave belonging, love, and redemption, it's tricky to understand how they go about fulfilling those desires. They oftentimes don't even understand themselves, as evidenced by a scene when June tosses a gift from Sylvie into the fire, then throws herself in a second later to retrieve it.

So it's difficult to wrap our minds around The Surrendered because the characters sometimes seem to act senselessly. Is yet another story about finding one's true identity worth a read? Yes. Lee leads us on to feel that somewhere, somehow, everything and everyone in The Surrendered makes sense. Each character has redeemable qualities. All we have to do keep turning the page until we finally land on one that describes the better versions of themselves we always knew existed. So we read on and learn more about the paths of each one — how June became an orphan, how Sylvie became a missionary, or how Hector became an alcoholic. And suddenly, when the book comes to a chronological end, we realize we might not have entirely figured these people out. So what's the point? Lee told us in the first sentence. The conclusion of a book is rarely what we remember. We remember the journey between pages one and 469.

Chang-Rae Lee will be at the International House at the University of Chicago, 1414 E. 59th Street tonight at 6 p.m. as part of his tour for The Surrendered.