For the start of his fourth novel, Chang-rae Lee drops his reader on top of a train car barreling through the night. Eleven-year-old June is fleeing North Korea with her younger sister and brother. The rest of her family has been conscripted or killed their shrunken trio now among the hordes of famished refugees of the Korean War.
There is a brutal momentum to these opening pages of The Surrendered, and Lee never loses his sense of urgency in his time-shifter of a story that spans five decades. Hector, an American GI convinced he travels in an orbit of doom, stumbles upon June and leads her to a missionary-run orphanage. There they meet the preacher's wife, Sylvie a woman desperately trying to blot out her own fetid memories of a former war and their three fates become entwined.
Lee, author of the celebrated novel Native Speaker, writes dense and gorgeous prose, never more so than when he is describing horrific scenes of confrontation, violence, and injury. Some are so vivid and brutal they may leave a reader stunned to the point of needing air. June, Hector, and Sylvie are ragged souls, spit back into the world by the meat grinder of war. And yet there is such exquisite pain and humanity in their stories, each of them so intimate with the vulnerability of their very raw lives. As a soldier, Hector washed corpses as part of his gig in the Graves Unit. The gruesome duty gave him some measure of comfort: "It had heartened him to see them come clean, even as brutally ruined as they were, to leave them again, at least in one small way, pristine. Maybe that was mercy enough." Lee shows great tenderness for his broken three, even as he refuses them easy redemption. The final paragraph of his beautiful and tragic novel is as sublime and transcendent as any I can remember. A