The three protagonists of Chang-Rae Lee’s novel The Surrendered are marked by fatalities and tragedy. The depth of the damage they experience appears infinite, and yet all three continue to stay afloat, if not move forward.
June is a dutiful daughter of eleven when her family is ensnared in the brutality of the Korean War. After weeks of starvation on the road with her family, she is the only one who remains of her parents and four siblings. Their deaths are unceremonious; she can do nothing but continue. June survives, but the war marks her indelibly. As the violence peters out, she encounters an American soldier on the road and, despite the reader’s grim expectations, he does nothing but lead her to a home for the other children who have lost their pasts to the war. But the child who was June has vanished, she has grown cruel and withdrawn with her peers and there is little hope of her adoption.
The American soldier is Hector. He is a man who possesses an almost supernatural ability to cheat destruction. He wins any drinking contest because alcohol has no discernible effect on him and the many physical, brutal fights he engages in reward him with wounds that heal with absurd, and for him, frustrating, rapidity. After the death of his father, Hector leaps at the chance to join the army, finding himself in the inferno of Korea, where he continuously confronts horrors and dead bodies with a frightening ease.
The third protagonist is Sylvie. She is the wife of the Reverend Tanner and together they run orphanage where Hector and June wind up. Sylvie has enough terrors and darkness of her own without the lurking shadows of the war in Korea. The only child of missionaries, her family was caught in Manchuria during the conflict between the Japanese and the Chinese and her very existence cost others their lives.
These three intricately crafted characters are a trio of the ravished. When their paths entwine, the meetings do not remedy the damage of their pasts. Lee lays out his story in swatches and it is with eagerness, but bated breath, that the reader awaits the union of the pieces.
Lee’s descriptions are not vociferously brutal, but the circumstances he describes make your heart pound. The stories are factual and soul splitting. Need is central to these characters’ experiences and the needs of the body are particularly felt. The corporeal desires range from food, to release, to sex. Not one of Lee’s characters is whole and the manners in which they attempt to satiate their need are hardly healing.
Lee treats the mundane details of his story with the same weight as the injustices of war, never putting one above the other in the hierarchy of pain. But the difference is obvious and the author's ability not to stress the point intensifies the poignancy of the discrepancies.
The hand of the author is not invisible in this novel. Sometimes his language ranges obtusely outside the colloquial usage, and at other moments his odd choices are a delicious stamp of authorship. The moments when Lee emerges from the text suggests a certain discomfort with the comforts he so briefly allows his characters. Life is ruthless with them; their suffering does not make them heroes, nor does it make them exempt from further pain.