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The Surrendered Paperback – March 1, 2011


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Amazon Exclusive: Chang-Rae Lee on The Surrendered

Chang-Rae LeeThe inspiration for The Surrendered has its roots in a project I worked on more than twenty years ago, while I was still in college. I was taking a seminar on modern Korean history, and I decided that I would conduct an interview with my father to fulfill the writing assignment, conceiving a reporter-at-large-type piece that would offer personal testimony and narrative set against a historical backdrop. I wasn't sure if he would agree. My father was twelve years old on the eve of the Korean War, and although over the years I had asked him a number of times about his experiences, his responses were typically vague and hurried; he never seemed to want to talk about that time, only briefly mentioning that his sister had died during the war from an untreated bout of pneumonia. But since I was taking a course with a special focus on Korea, he agreed to speak in more detail about that period.

My father's family was originally from Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, and they had joined the throngs of refugees who were heading south in an attempt to get behind the line of American forces. He first recounted a story about his favorite older cousin, who was pregnant and just about to give birth as the rest of the extended family was frantically packing up and leaving. My father was dispatched to tell his cousin that everyone was departing—explosions could be heard in the distance—yet even though she and her husband desperately wanted to go, she had already started her labors. She couldn’t be moved. Everybody soon left, and that was last time the cousin and her husband were seen alive; to this day no one knows what happened to them, whether they perished or survived the war and ended up living in North Korea.

Telling that story of his cousin seemed to break the grip of something on my father. He recounted again that his sister had died of pneumonia during the refugee march, then added, casually, that in fact his younger brother had died during their travels, too. This disclosure surprised me. I knew that he had lost a brother, this from asking him, as children often will, about how many siblings he had, matching the number against my uncles and aunts, but I remembered his saying that his brother had died in a "subway accident." I didn't think there was a subway in either Pyongyang or Seoul during his childhood, so I asked him when his brother had died, and how.

My father told me that in fact his brother had been killed not by a subway car but by a boxcar of a train full of refugees. They were among the hundreds who filled the cars. The car holding the rest of their family was packed tight, so he and his brother had to sleep on top of the boxcar. In the middle of the night the train halted violently, and his brother, who was eight years old, fell off, the train then lurching forward for a short distance. My father jumped down and went back and found his brother, whose leg had been amputated by the wheels of the train. My father carried him back to the car, to the rest of their family, as the blood—and his life—ran out of him.

I've been haunted by that story since I heard it, not only by the horror of the accident but also by 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 certainly 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.

In recent years I began to consider writing a novel about that time, and what happened to my father and his brother kept coming back to me. I finally decided to try to write that scene, wondering whether a larger story might be instituted. 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 had 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 that those who have experienced conflict must endure.

(Photo of Chang-Rae Lee © David Burnett)


--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Lee's masterful fourth novel (after Aloft) bursts with drama and human anguish as it documents the ravages and indelible effects of war. 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. 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. But Sylvie is irretrievably scarred as well, having witnessed her parents' murder by Japanese soldiers in 1934 Manchuria. These traumas reverberate throughout the characters' lives, determining the destructive relationship that arises between June, Hector and Sylvie as the plot rushes forward and back in time, encompassing graphic scenes of suffering, carnage and emotional wreckage. Powerful, deeply felt, compulsively readable and imbued with moral gravity, the novel does not peter out into easy redemption. It's a harrowing tale: bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking—and not to be missed. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade; Reprint edition (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485011
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485015
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #104,216 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Chang-Rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-Rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton university.

Customer Reviews

The language is incredibly beautiful and poetic, and the characters' stories are truly riveting.
Trish D'imperio
The book is certainly filled with violence, but is redeemed by the endurance and perseverance shown by its characters who in the end surrender to their fates.
Benn Bell
Though the characters did think and behave realistically at times and some plot points were compelling, the book was just too overwrought.
Ellen W.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 112 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Short summary and review - no spoilers.

This novel jumps around in time and place - from 1930's Manchuria to 1980's New York and Italy. We start off in Korea in the early 1950's during the Korean War. We are introduced to one of the main characters in the book - a young girl we come to know as June, who is one of the many refugees who are fleeing their homes. She is only 11 years old, and seeking shelter, food and safety for her and her younger siblings.

This first chapter is just an extraordinary opening - and it is one of the most harrowing descriptions I've ever read of the refugee/wartime experience.

Other key characters include Hector, an American soldier who joins the army to get away from his small town after a tragic event involving his family. Hector is a wonderful character - he is a noble, decent man put in war time situations that could break anyone's spirit. We also meet Sylvie Tanner, the daughter of missionaries, who ends up in Korea just after the war taking care of Korean orphans with her husband. It is here that Sylvie meets up with Hector and June.

We know from the early chapters that take place in 1980s New York that June is trying to locate her her son and that she wants Hector to go with her. By going back and forth between time and place, we can see how early horrific wartime experiences changed their lives forever .

There is a tremendous amount of foreshadowing in this novel - in seemingly every chapter we are made aware of secrets and horrors from each character's past, and it is only at the end when we find out the whole story. In some ways this felt a bit manipulative, but not overly so and it did add to the book being a page-turner, especially towards the end.
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74 of 81 people found the following review helpful By M. Feldman VINE VOICE on February 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In "The Surrendered," Chang-Rae Lee examines the 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. Nearly starved, she follows him to safety, and then to a Korean orphanage, where Hector works as a handyman. Years later, their lives intersect once more, in the U.S., where Hector, who lives on the edge of down and out, still handles a mob and broom, and June, suffering from cancer, begins a journey to understand--if not solve--more than one mystery.

The scenes in the novel that are set during the war and afterward, at the orphanage, as well as a sub-plot set during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, run like a vivid thread through "The Surrendered." Here, Lee conveys, in compelling detail, the cost of the war not only in lives but in emotional suffering. These scenes, taut and well plotted, are the best part of the novel.

The depiction of the adult lives of Hector and June is less successful, primarily because Lee utilizes long passages of interior consciousness that add little to the characterization of either one of them. After a while, I found my eye sliding over these. Even descriptive passages are sometimes too prolix, as if the narrator could not bear to leave out a single detail, however irrelevant. A sheet of dryer fabric softener, for example, smells of lilacs, and then of the memory of Hector's mother's lilacs. As the characters pass through Siena, the narrator offers a tourist's guidebook sidebar on the festival of the Palio. Details of illness, addiction or even drunkenness--retching, nausea, injections, the growth of a tumor, the look of someone's vomit, and so on--recur, to excess.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Chang-Rae Lee has written an ambitious novel containing scenes of undeniable power. His ability to capture the collateral casualties of war was obvious from the first, and I found myself admiring both his writing and narrative technique, even as I was repelled by the grimness of the picture he was painting. But I could not fully warm to any of the characters. As the book went on, I found myself reading with growing impatience, as his skill at jumping around between time periods began to look like delaying tactics, making a long novel even longer without significantly deepening his character portrayal or developing his theme.

The setting of the novel ranges from China in 1934 to Italy in 1986, but the central events take place in an orphanage in Korea in 1953, where the lives of three people intersect. June is a young Korean girl who lost her parents and siblings during the flight from the advancing Communists in 1950. Hector is an American GI, a psychological casualty of the Korean War, now working as a handyman. And the lovely Sylvie, herself the daughter of missionaries, is the wife of the director of the mission orphanage. Both June and Hector become attracted to Sylvie, who has herself been traumatized by her experiences during the Japanese invasion of China in 1934. They are three damaged people trying in vain to find healing in one another.

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 grungy, 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.
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