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From the Notables List–“The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee

I’m continuing my journey through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list with a novel, “The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee, an author of fine reputation.

“The Surrendered” begins with a harrowing scene from the Korean War–a teenage girl is fleeing the war in the north with her younger twin brother and sister. They end up riding on the top of a traincar full of refugees. When the train makes a sudden stop, the brother and sister fall, and then are run over when the train lurches forward. The sister is dead, and the brother bleeding beyond hope. She decides to leave them both and runs for the departing train.

Lee then develops a story of braided lives and times. There is that Korean sister, June, now in her 50s and suffering from cancer, closing up her antiques shop in New York, having engaged a private detective to help track down her son. There is Hector, possibly the father of that son, who worked in the Korean orphanage where June landed after the war. There is Sylvie, whose pastor husband oversaw that orphanage, and who develops troubling relationships with both June and Hector. There is Dora, the woman who finally offers Hector true love. And there is June’s son, off in Europe, apparently engaging in small-time theft. The settings move between contemporary America, Europe, Korea, and China, and from the Korean War to contemporary New York to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Lee is the master of the small gesture, of the failed attempt to be better, of minor selfish decisions that lead to tragedy. He offers hope when decisions sustain life or create kindness, and especially when kindness is accepted.

Lee manages those multiple plots and people masterfully. I sensed an expert plot-writer at work, and at one point believed that the story would morph into a thriller. Instead, Lee is about the people, and how they change as time moves along. They might appear to be common people living everyday lives, and yet they harbor secrets and memories that remain hidden until their paths cross again, and what seems to be the past pushes into the present.

I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read books about this kind of violence and tragedy. Often it seems to be that despite the difficulties, they offer hope. Lee returns to that first searing scene as the story ends, and does so with an overwhelming sense of hope, of life.

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