In narrating the continent-spanning relationship between an American GI and a Korean refugee, Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel, The Surrendered, seems to be making a connection between his acclaimed debut, Native Speaker, whose protagonist is Korean-American, and the uneasy suburbanite of 2004’s Aloft, whose discomfort with the immigrants around him represented a departure within Lee’s work. In spite of their cultural and emotional estrangement, the Korean War-scarred pair of The Surrendered, whose voices travel from deep inside the wells of their own unhappiness, inform Lee’s finest novel to date.
June Han is dying of stomach cancer when she decides to hire a private investigator to find her son, last heard from asking for money to be sent to an Italian post office. She soon discovers Nicholas has followed his mother into the antique business, only instead of restoring and selling, he’s an expert thief with a paper trail running across Europe. But this discovery only makes June more determined to see him again. Meanwhile, his father, Hector Brennan, works odd jobs in New Jersey, afraid to return to the small New York town where his own father drank himself to death, and taking joy only in a tenuous relationship with a voluptuous fellow barfly. He’d prefer to avoid June and their tumultuous history, which began in the orphanage where he worked after a dishonorable discharge, and where June sought shelter after months on the run from the North Korean army.
The slow revelation of Hector and June’s former lives, both together and separately, would be excruciating, but for the confidence with which Lee cements down each piece of their history. The horror of June’s ordeal is mitigated by her calm resolve to carry out the last act from which everyone seeks to protect her. Her memory-fueled conviction in her son’s good nature and her confidence that he can be saved from the tortures his parents experienced binds the disparate characters in her search.
Though Lee jumps forward and back in time to deliver a relentless string of unforgettable images, from a makeshift chapel Hector builds for a lonely minister’s wife to June’s first lover being tortured during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the sensory spoils never engulf June’s quest, because of how skillfully the story unwinds. June may be Lee’s most difficult character to unlock, but he continues to explore her interiority, marked by the lasting wounds of war, with the same richness of detail.