The Surrendered found me before I it. I remember scanning the shelves of my school’s library, leisurely searching for my next read. Each and every time I found myself engrossed in the L section — the bookshelf shrine of all the works penned by authors whose surnames begin with L — I was always taken aback by the immediacy of The Surrendered, its bold red title poignantly embodying the desperation of its own meaning. The author, Chang-rae Lee, was a man whose name I, as a Korean, couldn’t help but remember from the little snippets of him I had seen in reviews and elsewhere. Yet, for some unknown reason, I never picked it up, only glanced at it several times before moving on to another rack.
I had passed by The Surrendered on multiple occasions when, once summer approached, I finally let its urgency conquer me. After having idled on my shelf for the entirety of summer, it has just been bent, flipped and read in the typical, humble quietude in which physical books are read, yet the experience has been anything but average. To this day, I have never encountered a literary work quite as intense as Lee’s The Surrendered. A day after I finished its final, long sought page, I remain in the wavering state of inertia that comes as a consequence of recognizing great beauty in modest things.
To give a brief overview: The Surrendered is a book that covers a stretch of time from the days of the Korean War to the 1980s, and it alternates in setting between South Korea, the US, and Italy. It is mainly the story of three people — June Han, Hector Brennan and Sylvie Tanner —whose lives are brought together in a complicated way at an orphanage after the end of the war. The book explores their relationship, their history and the mutual threads of human vulnerability that connect them together, and it is all weaved into a second plot in which June attempts to search for her missing son. (I do not want to reveal too much at this point, because this post is more an admiration of the book than it is a summary of the work).
There are many things that are preciously unique and so very amazing about The Surrendered. On a surface level, Lee writes in a manner that is breathlessly poetic. There is a cadence to his words that sing like poetry in the mind, and his long, drawn out sentences are not awkward, but fluid, as they bring the reader deeper and deeper into the work. Some images are breathtaking in their overwhelming beauty: there is one particular scene in which Lee describes a middle-aged female character, whose slight pockets of fat are described to be ‘life, gathering’. An image that is so devastatingly simple, yet still so beautiful. Lee’s use of voice, too, is admirable. As someone who has attempted writing dialogue with much difficulty, I find it amazing how Lee can portray the idiosyncracies of his characters through subtle changes in vernacular, diction and tone. The bluntness of June, the brusqueness of Hector, the warmth of Sylvie Tanner. Beyond that, the entire cast of supporting characters who brim with distinct personalities of their own and make the story what it is.
On another literary level, the way Lee so expertly manages the unfolding of the story is spectacular. The plot, in itself, is incredibly complex, and it is made infinitely more so by its being narrated by three distinct voices in different points in time. The characters and temporal context constantly shift and shuffle, ending each chapter with the chilling expectancy for which time, or which character, will come next. The connections between the characters — which, at first, seem quite tenuous — only get stronger and stronger, until the point in which the full picture clicks and the profundity of it overwhelms. And by no means is it a simple connection: there is a history and a context behind it that are often painful to read, what with the vividness with which Lee describes the horrors of war. The expertness in which Lee embarks on his literary quest constantly leaves the reader on his or her toes, making The Surrendered a book that truly takes the reader along with its story, both mentally and viscerally.
The ending, I have to say, is absolutely perfect. I will not divulge much information at this point, but its conciseness and significance close the book in a way that forgives the most traumatizing parts of the novel. Everything ends with a palpable sense of closure, leaving a heavy, if not relieved, settling in the reader’s heart.
That’s how I felt, at least.
Reading The Surrendered, I have learnt so much not only about the art of writing but also the significance of writing a powerful novel. Words can hurt, can transform. And with that in mind, I look forward to reading more of Lee’s works and attempting to create a similar beauty of my own.