Book Review: Chang-rae Lee’s Korean War Novel, The Surrendered

Released nationwide yesterday, Chang-rae Lee’s fourth book, “The Surrendered,” deals with the horrors of armed battle, though it is far from being just another war novel. Lee, whose first book, Native Speaker, received critical acclaim and earned him prestigious awards, revisits the themes that launched his past works to fame.

In The Surrendered, 11-year-old June Han flees the violence and destruction of the Korean War, and becomes accidentally separated from her 7-year-old twin siblings in the process. She seeks refuge in an orphanage near Seoul under a friendly American soldier named Hector Brennan, and is later comforted by the orphanage minister’s wife, Sylvie Tanner. With Sylvie’s help, June is able to slowly recover from her war-torn nightmares, but she discovers that not everything is as it seems, even in a sanctuary safe from war.

Lee creates three compelling characters in The Surrendered. The first is June, who must reckon with the anguish of losing her siblings to the war and the uncertain future that lies ahead. The second is Hector Brennan, an American G.I. who faces many of the same inner demons that June does. The final main character is Sylvie, who bears the burden of the past, having dealt with the terrors of war in another time and place.

As in his earlier novels, Lee is able to mold these characters into compelling, multi-dimensional figures who search for inner peace in a time of ruin. Though they come from different backgrounds, each character is bound to the other in some way.

What makes The Surrendered a must-read, however, is the fact that real-life events inspired the fictional characters and plot of the novel. In an Amazon Exclusive, Lee reveals that The Surrendered came from an interview he conducted with his father in college. His father told him the heartbreaking story of how his family was fleeing from Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and had to leave behind a pregnant cousin and her husband. They were never heard from again, and no one knows whether they survived.  In another account, Lee's father had to salvage the body of his dying younger brother, who had been flung from the top of a boxcar where he had been forced to sleep.

These real-life accounts of wars, as terrifying and as heartbreaking as they are, remind us that we must never forget the atrocities of the past in order to make better decisions in the future. The Surrendered promises to do just that, making it a necessary read for anyone who has ever been personally affected by wars past and present.