I’ve just finished an advance Chang-rae Lee’s fourth novel, The Surrendered, and my head is reeling. Just when you think you haven’t had enough pain, Lee punches you again in the gut.
The center of the story is a love triangle of sorts between June, a Korean orphan, wife of the minister in charge of the orphanage, and Hector, an ex-soldier who has stayed on to do maintenance work. All are already damaged, Sylvie by her childhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria as the daughter of another missionary family and Hector, by dint that he is just a magnet for disaster. And June? Let’s just say that the first 30 or so pages of June’s story are about as wrenching as I’ve read. More on that below.
The story zips backwards and forwards. In the present day, June is dying of stomach cancer, and intent on finding her missing son in Italy. She’s also hoping to locate Hector. Past or present, this is not a light-hearted story. As my friend Arsen at Boulder Bookstore said to me, it’s a rare thing when you can say that the battle scenes in a novel are among the least brutal.
According to Lee’s publisher Riverhead, one of the most devastating stories was actually inspired by a true event, which Lee originally heard from his father when he was taking a modern Korean history course. Let’s just say that June plays the role of Lee’s father—it’s best of you read the story for yourself.
So much of The Surrendered is captured in little details. It’s no coincidence that Hector is named after the doomed hero of The Odyssey. And there’s no question that both June’s illness and profession are among several winking ironies.
We’re lucky enough to be hosting Mr. Lee on Saturday, March 13th, at 2 PM. This is only 4 days after the book comes out (on March 9th), so few attendees will be able to read the book ahead of time. This is the good and the bad about being on an official author tour—they have to time these things to get the big pop just after the book is released.
We should have Chang-rae Lee’s previous novels in event-sized stock shortly. His most popular work to date has been A Gesture Life. Both it and his first novel, Native Speaker, focus on the lives of Koreans and Korean-Americans. His last novel, Aloft, that I read and enjoyed, was quite the departure, the story of a life crisis of an Italian American. The book received major attention, included the coveted New York Times trifecta (Sunday review, daily review, feature story). Here’s a link to them.
The new novel works on a much larger canvas, and in some ways builds on his earlier work (though Jerry Battle is far more comfortable in his life than Hector ever was). Expectations are running very high for its release. We're honored to be hosting him, and thrilled that publishers are finally getting the Chicago excursion secret--Lee is traveling here and back in just a day trip.
New Books 3/28
8 hours ago