The Surrendered

Written by Chang-Rae Lee
Review by Helene Williams

June Han’s life has not been easy; as a child, she survived the ravages of war in Korea, and as an adult she struggled as a single working mother in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, not yet fifty years old, she has cancer, and is determined to locate her estranged son Nicholas before she dies. She won’t seek him alone, however: she wants to bring Hector Brennan along on this journey. Hector was the soldier who saved June after the war, bringing her to the orphanage where he stayed on to help keep the place going. Thirty years later, he’s in New Jersey, doing odd jobs and a lot of drinking and fighting so as not to think about his former life. His and June’s shared past contains many secrets, and it is in June’s final journey that the truth about both of their lives is slowly revealed.

The story shifts its point of view between characters, with some chapters serving as set pieces: in these we experience the horrors of the Korean War and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and we feel the effects the brutality and loss have on the survivors, decades later. Other characters contribute to the depth of the novel, including Sylvie Tanner and her husband Ames, the Americans in charge of the Korean orphanage. Colorful secondary characters abound as well, but everyone in the novel suffers from a blunting of the senses. They’ve all been through so much turmoil and pain that they are emotionally shut off from each other, and any gesture of trust or love is rejected. The emotion comes in the flashbacks, when we see the characters make choices—out of love, hate, spite, or fear—that change their lives forever.