27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
, March 12, 2010
This review is from: The Surrendered (Hardcover)
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. Moving forward, the scenes in the mission, interspersed throughout the book, are generally well told, although it can be difficult to get a clear sense of the passage of time.
But it is in the after-story that Lee fails. The first flash-forward is intriguingly mysterious, but the facts soon emerge: June is dying of cancer and sells up her successful New York antiques business, heading for Italy to track down her son Nicholas, the fruit of her brief marriage of convenience to Hector. It soon becomes obvious that this later story is created solely as a framework to contain the flashbacks. Nicholas never gets fleshed out as a human being, and Lee is astoundingly cavalier in manipulating events to suit his purposes, introducing characters only to dismiss them on a whim, and stretching credulity to its limits. The book ends in the ossuary in Solferino, the 1859 Italian battlefield that is mentioned several times earlier in the novel, with the sole apparent purpose of having somewhere to end it.
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.
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