Johnny's Reviews > The Surrendered

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
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Nov 06, 11

bookshelves: pulitzer-finalist, war, asia, female-protagonist, fiction, family
Read from September 10 to November 05, 2011

I really didn't give this book a fighting chance. I borrowed the audio version from the library before a long solo car trip, but I only ended up listening to about one-third of it on that trip. During that trip I was in and out of focus because I had a cold coming on, and then of course I didn't continue the saga until my next trip a few weeks later. This was not the best course of action for keeping up with Lee's complex chronology in which the story constantly folds in on itself, jumping from decade to decade as we are provided with the various elements of the protagonist's journey.

Because of my disconnected listening sessions, I found myself a bit confused by the various focal points of the narrative, most of which center on June Han, an orphan of the Korean War who is taken in by some well-meaning missionaries and eventually transported to the United States where she eventually becomes a successful antiques dealer in New York City trying in vain to contact her estranged son while she suffers from a terminal diagnosis of cancer. The vastness of the story is provided piecemeal, the opening focusing on the horrible deaths of June's family during the war and then shifting back and forth over the decades until the final chapter provides the final piece to the puzzle. This sort of postmodern construction certainly does not lend itself to anything but a sustained reading session, and I unfortunately didn't provide myself with this opportunity.

Lee's narration is definitely gorgeous, but the horrid imagery of the opening chapter which details one by one the devastating deaths of June's family turned me off initially. (This is my typical reaction to war literature though.) At the close of that first chapter, I was relieved at the shift to present day and the comparatively mundane struggles of June closing up her life in New York as she embarks on a journey to find her son in the face of her own imminent death. By the time that the story revisited June's childhood in Korea though, I found my attention waning and when she engages in a few romantic relationships at far too young an age with adults who should have known far better, I listened on with one eyebrow raised as I questioned Lee's intentions. Again, had I been reading the novel in regular intervals, I'm sure I would feel differently about the book, but the experience I had with it was definitely challenging and at times even tedious. While I'm anxious to read another of Lee's novels, I am now forewarned to avoid such sporadic readings!
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