Riverhead: 472 pp., $26.95
You could say that Chang-rae Lee explores Asian American identity in his novels. You could say he explores the legacies of war, or the roots of betrayal, but none of these grand statements, one suspects, accurately describes the inspiration, the grace behind the books he writes. This is an author who pulls at threads -- from his own past, from his ancestors' and from his cultural memory. He weaves them, quite literally, chapter by chapter, into stories.
Born in Korea, Lee grew up in New York's bucolic Westchester County. He teaches at Princeton. He is driven by a need to understand the sum of his parts -- the joy and the suffering of the characters that inhabit his imagination. In his four novels -- "Native Speaker" (1995), "A Gesture Life" (1999), "Aloft" (2004) and now, "The Surrendered" -- we see the weaver at work. All fall in that enviable niche we call literary fiction. This means the reader can have it all -- good writing, memorable characters and imaginative, fast-paced plot. You don't have to choose between profound and thrilling.
"The Surrendered" is powered by injustice, even rage. From the very first chapter, "Korea, 1950," in which we meet 11-year-old June, one of thousands of orphaned refugees, we feel suffocated, our own lives shortened, by the lunacy, the cruelty of war. June is traveling south on the cold roof of a train with her 7-year-old twin siblings, a boy and a girl. Their father has been publicly beaten and shot; their older brother has disappeared; their older sister has been raped and killed, along with their mother, before their eyes. When the train stops short, the younger children are thrown off; the little girl dies, and one of the boy's feet is gone. Lee has said this scene comes from his father, who was 12 when he fled from the North during the Korean War and whose younger brother was killed when he was accidentally thrown from atop a refugee train. There had not been enough room inside for the boys.
The book hurtles forward 36 years. June, diagnosed with stomach cancer, is closing her antiques business in New York to hunt for her son, who disappeared into Europe after his high school graduation eight years earlier. June's husband has died and she is packing up her life to find both Nicholas and his father, Hector, a soldier in the Korean War who had met June after her family had been killed and took her to an orphanage, where he would work for several years before returning to the States with her.
Each character in "The Surrendered" has a childhood filled with emotional anguish and violence. Hector, who lives in Ilion, N.Y., where he grew up, is haunted by the tragic death of his father and by the many civilians (including children) whose deaths he caused. Sylvie is a fragile, nurturing woman with an opium addiction whose minister husband runs the orphanage. She wants children but is unable to have them. In a state of desperation and loneliness, she has an affair with Hector. All of Lee's characters are hungry -- for food, for love, for some peace and safety. Many are orphans; all are refugees -- that capacious metaphor for life.
The often graphic violence in the novel gives it a strange, uneven heat. It's possible that readers consume violent passages more quickly -- the eye moves through a scene filled with torture faster than an equally, if not more important, scene in which the theft of a book reveals something about the character who stole it. We look away, as many of Lee's characters cannot.
The novel ricochets among the 1950s (Korea), the 1930s (Manchuria) and the 1980s (New York and Italy). It rolls downhill, in the way that reunions between lovers or parents and children create a kind of gravity; the still, safe point that pulls us toward June's imagined reunion with her son. Characters grow and grapple with memories and encounter fresh violence. The tumors in June's stomach appear in her dreams as "wards of her nursery and she was naming them as she would children, these eager clumps in her bones, in her lymph nodes, speckles on her liver and lungs, all racing to see which of them would bring her its final gift: You're darlings, she said to them, in a warm, matronly voice."
What makes this a big novel is not just its range, its historic scope or the number of lives gathered in its pages, but that their memories do not entirely explain the course of their lives. There is a little window open in each for will, for changing history. Sometimes it is slammed shut and the character must pick him- or herself up off the ground, bruised and bleeding to fight the genetic code, the bloody tide of vengeance and regret. Sometimes Lee's characters walk right through that slender opening in the fabric of fate. He could not hold them down, even if he wanted to.
Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.