By Chang-rae Lee
480 pages; Riverhead
It might not sound like a fun read—467 pages of graphic descriptions of the physical and emotional cruelties inflicted by war—yet Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered, an exploration of the corrosiveness of survivor guilt, is impossible to put down. You'll care too much about the characters: starving young Korean war orphan June, who somehow survives unbearable brutality; too-handsome American GI Hector, who believes he destroys all he touches; and missionary wife Sylvie, whose angelic grace masks her damaged soul. As the characters' destinies intersect, time periods and locales shift from 1934 China to 1950 Korea to 1986 Manhattan, where Hector joins June, now a wealthy antiques dealer, in the search for her son, who left home eight years earlier. The plot is complex, as Lee (the author, most recently, of Aloft) raises profound questions about the role of fate, accident, and choice in every life. Although you shouldn't expect a conventional happy ending, both June and Hector do achieve moments of redemption, realizing "that while rife disorder ruled this world there was also human tendency and need (however misguided, however wrong) forever tilting against it. Love was the prime defiance."