Across the Page: April 2010

This month’s Across the Page features three extremely different books: Chang-Rae Lee’s harrowing tale of love and war, The Surrendered; Terry Galloway’s evocative memoir Mean Little deaf Queer; and Susan Gabriel’s charming story of two friends who fall in love after 30 years of separation, Seeking Sara Summers.

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead Books)

Chang-Rae Lee’s fourth and latest novel, The Surrendered, is a gripping and compelling story that follows the lives of three characters: June Han, a Korean-American dying of cancer and trying to find her son who left home years ago to travel; Hector Brennan, the missing son’s estranged father and a veteran of the Korean War; and Sylvie Tanner, a missionary wife running an orphanage during wartime Korea — once the object of June and Hector’s love, lust and devotion, her death now haunts both characters.

Hector and June, an unlikely pair, reunite in June’s effort to locate their son and as they travel through Europe we learn the story of how they met years ago as he was making his way to the orphanage to find work.

June lost her entire family during the war — including a tragic accident that took the lives of the younger siblings June was left to care for after her parents died.  The accident and the loss shape June’s story and life — “she had a heart that craved more readily than it accepted.”  Hector, too, is troubled by a complicated past that includes brutal memories from the war and believing he was responsible for his alcoholic father’s death.

The enchanting Sylvie represents something different to Hector and to June, but both try to turn her into a figure of redemption.  For Hector, Sylvie is as “broken” as he is and an escape from his immediate and distant past. For June, Sylvie awakens her sexuality and desire, but through the potential for adoption she also represents a literal way out of June’s worn-torn country.

But as charming and beautiful as Sylvie is, she has her own haunts, including addiction, infertility and a past she, too, is trying to overcome. In many ways, she is destined to let Hector and June down — and she does, of course, only to pay severe consequences.

Lee deftly moves from character to character, past to present, war-ravaged Korea to New York City in the late eighties, creating a tremendous amount of compassion for these very troubled and flawed characters.  The prose is lush and engaging—again, whether Lee is writing about war or love, desire or starvation, longing or grief.  Highly recommended.

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