I just finished this one and am still trying to catch my breath. The Surrendered is not just a novel, but an experience. A powerful one. I read Lee’s Aloft and Native Speaker some years back, the same year he led my group at the Napa Valley Writer’s conference, whenever that was. Both are fine works, but neither approached the stature of this one.
We start with fugitives during the Korean war. A young girl, who eventually becomes “June,” and the book’s central figure (or one of three, depending on how you look at it) is fleeing from her village with her family, caught among the Chinese, the Americans, the South and the North Korean Armies. As a result of events I won’t recount here, she lands in an orphanage run by American missionaries.
Considered clinically, you might say that both she and the wife of the man who runs the place, a woman named Sylvie, are are victims of severe, untreated PTSD. However, Lee is not interested in clinical descriptions. He’s determined to delve nto the deepest emotional and visceral lives of three people whose life experiences have damaged them beyond measure. The third person of the trio is an American soldier named Hector who, once discharged, stays in Korea with the orphanage as a handyman because he can think of no special reason to return to the U.S.
As ugly as the events that have steered their lives in the direction they’ve taken, though, Lee doesn’t treat his characters as victims. He digs deeply into how their individual personalities interact with their experience, combine to shape their lives. The who is as important as the what to defining the eventual self. The book covers several decades, and its central action is a quest June undertakes as an adult, having eventually made it to the States. Cancer is consuming her, threatening to end her life at any time during her journey. The first object of her search is a lost son, one about whom she carries enormous guilt for her inability to provide the emotional support he needed throughout his life. The second is for an Italian church in a village called Solferino, the site of a horrific 1859 battle crucial to the fight for Italian unity, and also a pivotal event in the eventual formation of the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross. However, though the history may be important, it is not central to the journey June undertakes with Hector. The quest is intensely personal, not so much historical or academic. The history is useful for an intellectual consideration of its parallels with modern events, but for the characters (and reader) its impact is direct and emotional. Like any good quest story, Lee lays many obstacles and monsters in the way of his knights errant, each one more fearsome and wrenching than the last. And when you reach that final mountaintop, you know you’ve been somewhere, though you may not be sure where you’ve arrived.
Structurally, Lee sets himself a difficult and risky pattern, and does so with extraordinary success. He spends pages and pages exploring minutely the reactions and musings of his characters, yet disposes of a couple of key events in the narrative within a few paragraphs. Ordinarily, this would go against my grain. In Surrendered, I never felt short-shrifted. He refers briefly to an event or circumstances, leading readers to believe they’ve gotten all they’re going to get, then returns unexpectedly to that time and place, and we discover that something we thought trivial is suddenly key. Or he returns to something we know as key, only to find that the character or characters have changed their view or feelings about it, and we (and perhaps they) deepen their understanding of how it has affected their lives. The emotional landscape has shifted, moved around by earthquake of fresh experience. Seems real to me, and it takes enormous language skills to capture it.
On a critique of my own work, Lee once wrote. “Remember, character, character, character.” He’s certainly followed his own advice and to the betterment of American Literature and to new insight into this period in American history–I’m talking both the Korean war and the wars that consume us now and whose traumas will reverberate down through the generations. Surrendered is a monumental achievement.