(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Originally meant to tell the story of a Korean “comfort woman” during World War II from her point of view, A Gesture Life was eventually changed by Chang-rae Lee to focus on a potential tormentor of the comfort women. The novel begins as the first-person narrator, Franklin “Doc” Hata, is apparently at ease with his life in his seventies. Well-accepted, integrated, and esteemed in his fictional suburban New York community of Bedley Run, he owns a large home with pool and appears to be an immigrant success story. After selling the medical supply shop he has run for more than thirty years to a young family, he looks set to enjoy tranquil retirement.

It is after a minor fire accident sends him to a hospital that Hata’s exemplary life begins to unravel as he reviews his existence in a series of sustained flashbacks. Born in Korea, as a young child he was adopted by a Japanese family and raised in Japan, assimilated into Japanese culture and language. Having lost his Korean birth name, he was called Ziro Kurohata. Introducing the historical fact of the assimilation of Koreans into imperial Japan serves Lee an interesting counterpoint to the assimilation of Asian Americans in the United States and makes his protagonist twice removed from the place where he lives now.

Drafted into the Japanese army as a paramedic in World War II, he finds himself in 1944 in a remote outpost in Burma. Suddenly, five Korean “comfort women” are brought to camp. Historically, the...

(The entire section is 609 words.)