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Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
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A-The SurrenderedChang-rae Lee, selected by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, is the author of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, Native Speaker (1995); A Gesture of Life (1999); and Aloft ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004). A first-generation Korean American, he teaches at Princeton University.

The Story: During the Korean War, June Han, an 11-year-old orphan and refugee, loses her little sister and then abandons her brother as she flees North Korea to survive. She meets both war-scarred American soldier Hector Brennan, who brings her to a missionary-run orphanage near Seoul, and Sylvie Tanner, a reverend's wife who witnessed Japanese soldiers murder her parents in 1930s Manchuria. The story weaves back and forth between 1950s Korea and New York and Italy in 1985, as June and Hector reunite. They address their past secrets and explore their intertwined histories--traumatic and heartbreaking--as each succumbs to love, sacrifice, memories of war, and war's awful aftermath.
Riverhead. 469 pages. $26.96. ISBN: 9781594489761

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Lee] 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." Karen Valby

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"As ravagingly as Surrendered portrays the deaths, often under torture, of countless war victims--many of them victors only in name--Lee also times its sequences to a single, slow, highly particularized dying. ... The intelligence of The Surrendered lies in an awareness that while, on the one hand, wherever there is anguish there will forever be those working to alleviate it, on the other, no force exists powerful enough to entirely eradicate the memory of evil." Celia McGee

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lee] has already proven himself a literary force to be reckoned with, but he's ratcheted things up a notch with his epic of grief and survival. ... [F]or Lee's characters, surviving at any cost has left them with a terrible question: Was it really worth it?" Yvonne Zipp

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lee] not only shows us the sights and sounds of a country being torn apart by civil war, but also does an equally powerful job of conveying the emotional consequences of war--the psychological damage sustained by people, who will spend the rest of their lives trying to forget or exorcise terrible memories. ... By cutting back and forth in time, Mr. Lee turns June and Hector's quest to come to terms with their past into a kind of detective story for the reader." Michiko Kakutani

New York Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The Surrendered, his largest, most ambitious book, is about the horrors of war and the sorrows of survival, yet its manner is quiet, watchful, expectant, as if everyone, including Lee himself, were waiting to see what might accrue. ... It's no easy task for a novelist to make sheer doggedness beautiful, or even, for the length of a nearly 500-page narrative, interesting, but Lee trusts his own patience, his stubborn resolve to get to the bottom of things." Terrence Rafferty

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Thankfully, there is a payoff for bringing this sadness into your soul as you read Lee's exquisitely written book. The death that permeates this work makes the lives that inhabit it jump off the page." Adam Lashinsky

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"By the time the book really is over, we will have come to understand June's ‘diamond hard' character so completely that she'll seem more real than some people we know. ... With one full-hearted portrait out of three, Lee has only partially but rather magnificently succeeded." Donna Rifkind

Critical Summary

Change-rae Lee explored ethic identity, assimilation, and American suburban life in his previous novels. The Surrendered--much bleaker in tone and unique in its third-person perspective and cinematic, sweeping scope--marks a departure for the acclaimed author. The ambitious, largely successful novel goes beyond pop psychology to chronicle the effects of violence on the souls of different lives, and, we feel fair to warn, death lurks on almost every page. Only the Washington Post criticized what it felt were two less-than-compelling characters (Hector and Sylvie) and implausible, melodramatic subplots (Hector's relationships). In sum, Lee "may have written the feel-bad novel of the year," notes the Christian Science Monitor, but for many readers, that's a good thing.