Although much of Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel takes place during the Korean War and after the armistice in 1953, the author insists that The Surrendered is not a war story. “It’s a book about historical traumas and how those traumas exhibit themselves and find expression in individual people,” he tells BookPage from his home in Princeton, New Jersey.
Clocking in at nearly 500 pages and spanning six decades across four continents, this riveting and heart-wrenching narrative is alternately told from three points of view, shifting back and forth from past to present. The novel combines compelling character stories with devastating and timeless social commentary.
My conversation with Lee occurred shortly after a massive earthquake struck Haiti, and it was difficult not to dwell on the book’s relevance to this contemporary disaster. Lee agrees that the tragic stories from Haiti are related to the central theme of The Surrendered: “What happens to someone after an experience with mass conflict and traumatic violence?”
In his three previous novels, Native Speaker, A Gesture Life and Aloft, Lee has established himself as a storyteller of the immigrant experience in America—and the alienation that goes with it. The Surrendered, it seems, represents a departure. “My previous books have been focused on someone’s place in a society or culture,” he says. “I think this book is much more interested in the individual in a conditionality—and the conditionality being, of course, violence and war.”
Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University and has two daughters (ages nine and 12), admits he’s glad that “this one is out and done.” He says, “This book certainly took a long time. That was frustrating to me . . . although my wife sometimes thinks I wouldn’t write any faster even if I didn’t have a teaching job.”
When the book opens, 11-year-old June Han is fleeing Korea with her younger brother and sister. Hector Brennan is an American GI who takes June to an orphanage after her siblings die in a tragic accident. The wife of a missionary, Sylvie Tanner helps run the orphanage, and she entrances June and Hector to the point of obsession. The novel moves between scenes at the orphanage in Korea and in later decades when Hector and June reunite in New Jersey. The two eventually make a pilgrimage to Solferino, Italy, the site of a battle that haunted Sylvie.
In one early passage in Korea, June’s brother is dismembered on the roof of a moving train. This scene was inspired by Lee’s father, who lost his younger brother in a similar accident during the Korean War. Lee, who came to the U.S. as a three-year-old and now considers his connection to Korea “more familial than personal,” was startled to learn of this event while writing a biographical paper about his father for a seminar in college.
“The story as he told it was just a few sentences,” Lee says. “But that story always haunted me and had always stayed with me.” In conceiving of The Surrendered, Lee never intended to incorporate the train scene, although he realized in the middle of writing that it would fit nicely into the events of June’s life.
“So I completely fictionalized all the details that you read there. It didn’t have any before. But the basic thrust of that chapter is wandering as a refugee and really traumatic loss of family. That’s something that I thought was absolutely right for June.”
With this scene, and with many others, Lee does not let the reader off easy; there are no neat, uplifting endings for June, Hector or Sylvie. However, one of the story’s most resounding motifs is mercy—not the typical kind of mercy, as light and hope and forgiveness, although there is some of that, but rather mercy as necessity or expedience. “It’s also the mercy of delusion and allusion,” Lee explains.
Although Lee did not consider mercy as a theme when he was writing The Surrendered, he agrees that it is a focal point of the book. “I think it’s just a natural outgrowth of what’s left after such intense and gratuitous heartbreak and misery,” he says. “One of the things that I was trying to answer for myself in this book is not just how people put their lives back together in the day-to-day [‘they don’t do it very well,’ Lee says as an aside], but also what can they morally hang on to? And emotionally hang on to? What kind of humane moment or act can lead them out of this very dark hole that they’re all in?”
Readers learn how mercy can arise in the midst of horror in one of the book’s most viscerally painful scenes, when Sylvie’s missionary parents are tortured by Japanese officers in Manchuria. “Mercy was the only true deliverance,” Lee writes. “There was nothing more exaltedly human, more beautiful to behold.”
As June, Hector and Sylvie journey through the trauma of war and its aftermath, it is natural to question Lee’s purpose in writing The Surrendered Is it a warning about the repercussions of mass violence? A meditation on the power of human resilience?
The author’s answer rings true to the reader’s experience. “It’s absolutely both,” Lee says. “Like an alternating current, it’s always alternating between the two. As a reader of this book and as a writer of this book, I can’t reside comfortably in either idea for very long. To switch metaphors, you’re constantly buffeted by these opposing winds.”
Lee pauses, then evokes the book’s final scene, at the end of June’s life. “It’s a book that ends in awe of life and all that life is,” he says. “Not really judging it one way or the other. Just agape. Saying: wow. Look at these people and how they’ve expressed themselves.”
If that answer is unsatisfying to readers who crave unequivocally happy endings, consider a line from Hector’s father: “They tell us stories not to live by but to change.” Epic and tragic, moving and lyrical, The Surrendered is not only literature that enthralls, it is a novel that will make you reflect on the world in which you live—and inspire dreams of peaceful change. As Lee says, “What a wonderful world it would be if a novel like mine could not be written, because there’s no reference. That would be amazing.”