Ally Armistead's Reviews > The Surrendered

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee
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Aug 18, 2010

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Read in November, 2010

What a truly ambitious novel: 60 years, 4 countries, three characters, two wars. Chang Rae Lee has outdone himself. Truly, the novel in many ways lives up to the critical hype: it is among the most beautifully written novels I've read this year, the BEST first chapter I've read in ANY book EVER (and I mean, WOW), while emanating an unforgettably evocative atmosphere of loss, pain, hunger, and desperation that will break your damn heart. June, Hector, and Sylvie show us the aftermath of trauma, how war (once its over) makes us desperate for sanity, for peace, for LOVE, for LIFE--even to the brink of destruction, addiction, and cruelty. The Surrendered, in a nutshell, is a gray-hued story of morphine and sex and violence; it is the psychology of survival.

However, with all that said, and I hate saying this, I wanted to LOVE Chang Rae Lee's novel more than I did--every ounce of it--but, unfortunately for this reader, I didn't. Here's what happened: there are HUGE GAPING HOLES in the plot, in character motivation, in structure. So large in fact, that I had to put the book down on several occasions and ask myself (often aloud) "am I reading a misprint?" "did my book's binding come undone? Are there chapters littered behind me?" and when I hit page 400, I held my breath, thinking "of course he will fill them in, of course he will," but, alas, he did not, ending the book with so much unsaid, so much unearned, and that horrible feeling of reaching the end of a very long novel and saying to yourself "did I miss something?"

Specifically, the novel (most likely due to its nonlinear narrative structure) leaves out key pieces of characters' pasts and back story that would have made their actions in the present narrative line much more clear and understandable. Yes, I understand that Hector and June are unraveling their secrets, but this doesn't fly when you're 75% of the way through the novel and (1) you have no idea why Hector chose to remain in Korea after the war, helping out at the orphanage; (2) you have NO CLUE how Hector and June came to be married; (3) you don't know why, once they were divorced, they chose NEVER to speak to each other again, especially when June is carrying Hector's son; and (4) you haven't a clue what on earth would motivate Hector to go to Italy with June (whose emergence after 30 years results in the accidental death of Hector's lover, Dora). Sure, I can stretch the motivations, make up stories, connect the dots but I shouldn't have to--at least, not to this extreme. Not when you have NO IDEA who these characters are.

Part of the difficulty I can only imagine Chang Rae Lee ran into with this book is how to balance revealing back story while also holding back for the ultimate reveal at the end (the nature of Hector and June's relationship to one another). Unfortunately, the reveal is not that much of a REVEAL, and, as a result, so much is sacrificed in the way of making these characters (and their twisted little worlds) believable (not to mention understandable). In this way I don't think the nonlinear structure (in this case) is advantageous or, quite frankly, worth it.

With all that said, however, the book is still beautiful. It is a mad rush (sometimes melodramatic) of hunger and loss (pain you feel in your gut) that I found myself forgiving its flaws, its lapses in logic, and just reading.

I'd highly recommend for anyone interested in the aftermath of war, who loves the beauty of language, or anyone currently writing a novel.

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