Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

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The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead Books, New York, 2010)

This 469-page whopper should not be tackled on an empty stomach, not only because the main theme is hunger, but because the characters are morbid, obsessive and mean.

“June Han” is a survivor of the 1959s Korean War who is almost driven to insanity by her nightmares about starvation and her guilt over what she did for food and security. As a soldier, “Hector Brennan” once saved her life, but now, traumatized, he is a lonely drunk, denying his desire for acceptance. June and Hector are not likeable characters, because Lee has skilfully and memorably depicted them as war survivors who suffer an insatiable psychological hunger and ultimately need to surrender to it to find peace. And in they end, they do. Sorry about the spoiler, but 469 pages is a lot of tension to endure.

Much has been written about the novel, including that:

“…the formal device of characterization in Chang-rae Lee’s novel, The Surrendered, depicts differences between the ontology of race and the ontology of disability in ways that reveal the stakes of reading at the intersection of Asian American studies and disability studies.” This is from an excellent analysis by Stephanie Hsu (rtrvd. 2016-03-06).

Chang-rae Lee is a much lauded Korean-American novelist and a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.  Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won numerous awards including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. His second novel, A Gesture Life (1999), won the Asian American Literary Award, and his third novel, Aloft (2004),  received the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category. The Surrendered won the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a nominated finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Lee’s most recent novel, On Such A Full Sea (2014) was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award. His novels have different settings and theme but share a common theme of immigrants (Korean-American, Japanese-American and Italian-American) struggling with alienation, betrayal,  identity and assimilation.

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