Stories that move back and forth in time and involve multiple disparate characters whose lives intersect do not usually lend themselves to simple summarization. Such is the case with Chang-rae Lee, the Korean-American author whose novel of the effects of the Korean War on its three central characters, The Surrendered, presents a painfully vivid portrait of June Han and her determination, in her dying days, to reconnect with her son. Beginning in the present (circa 1986) in New York with the opening line “The journey was nearly over,” The Surrendered proceeds to tell the story of June, terminally ill with cancer at the age of 47, her survival during the war in the country of her birth, Korea, and her efforts at tracking down her now-grown son, Nicholas, who has apparently fled her single-minded determination to build her antiques business, for a life in Italy. Along the way, June enlists the support of Korean War veteran and apparent father of Nicholas Hector Brennan, now living as a janitor but once employed following the war’s termination at the orphanage where the teenage June ended up following the deaths of each member of her family.
The Surrendered’s third main character is Sylvie Tanner, once Hector’s lover and the wife of American missionary who ran the orphanage. All three are tragic figures, but the story is primarily June’s. An almost robotically-driven individual, she impassionately survives a war that has taken the lives of her parents and siblings and then begins life anew in the United States, establishing and running her antique’s business while raising Nicholas. Her mission to find and reconnect with Nicholas, the basis of the story, is similarly pursued with a sort of cold-minded determination.
Lee’s novel begins, as noted, in the contemporary world of New York City, but moves among Korea during the war, and China during the 1930s to provide background and context for Sylvie’s character, who has long been the object of affection for both June and Hector. The Surrendered is a story replete with tales of human cruelty and suffering – after all, the Japanese occupation of China and the Korean War constituted two particularly brutal and inhumane chapters in world history, and the ravages of the cancer eating away at June is similarly violent in its effects on her. That June, who never surrendered, should ultimately be victimized by a fatal disease provides perhaps the novel’s main sense of irony, but June’s efforts at finding her son is entirely representative of the drive that enabled her survive when no other member of her family did.