Friday, April 16, 2010

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

The SurrenderedWe all know not to judge a book by its cover. But that's not the same as buying or wanting to read it, is it? And I mean it in both literal and figurative sense. After all, I can't judge a book before I read it but in order to even reach out for it, a nice cover is actually useful. Call me superficial, but yes, I do get encouraged or discouraged by the book covers. I am writing this slightly too long discourse on covers because of The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee, which in my opinion has the most alluring (I really, really love the simplicity) cover I have seen in a very long time and the content matched the packaging.

In The Surrendered we get to meet June Han who as a little girl became orphaned during the Korean war, Hector Brennan who joined the army and ended up fighting in the same war as a GI and Sylvie Tanner, a young wife of a missionary, a woman loved by both June and Hector and the one that bound them all together in a Korean orphanage. As a grown-up woman June sells everything she owns, including her antique shop and goes away in search for her son who is somewhere in Europe. But to find him, she needs to take Hector with her. They both came back to America after a short stay in an orphanage but split soon after. Now, thirty years later, they are forced to be together again even though all Hector want to do is forget Korea and June ever existed. But he joins June on the voyage to Europe and all of the events from thirty years ago come back to both of them, an invisible presence of beautiful but deeply disturbed Sylvie from the orphanage constantly lingering between the two.

This is my first book by Chang-Rae Lee and I must say it was quite an experience. I still can't decide how much I really like it because this novel had so many layers to it. I can tell you one thing, it's a very sad book and not necessarily in a way that will make you weep like Picoult's books may, but the whole atmosphere is rather depressing especially when you look at the whole story. There aren't many redemptive moments in the lives of June and Hector despite or maybe because of what they lived through. So it's definitely not a light read to take with you to the beach. However, it's a book that gets better everytime you read it. Do you have songs that you love to listen to now but when you first heard them, you weren't so crazy about them? They are not the kind of songs that everybody likes and sings right away but then they get soon replaced with another hit, but rather they are forever lasting, quality musical pieces that sound better and better every time you listen to them.The Surrendered is like such a song. I believe that it is meant to be read many times over and with each time, there will be more meanings and more qualities discovered.

I definitely took to Mr. Lee's writing, it has this haunting quality to it, sometimes even dream-like (even if it's more of a melancholy dream than a happy one) that really appeals to me and is what I look for in a good literary fiction. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments, sometimes even shocking, especially when reading about June and her family, and what war had done to them. The saddest realization is that the horrors of any war stay on and are very much present in the lives of the people who survived long after the war is finished. And I guess at some point they surrender.

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I have received a copy of this novel via Shelf Awareness.