I just finished Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered and I have to say, it may be one of the most beautifully written, but immensely depressing books I’ve ever read. In fact, 2 chapters into the book I almost put it down to find something lighter, happier, and less…emotionally draining. But I am glad that I didn’t.
The first time I encountered Chang-Rae Lee was my senior year of high school when, for whatever reason, I was really into Asian American literature. I mean REALLY into Asian American literature. I devoured anything that anyone recommended that was remotely about the Asian American experience and read nothing else. That’s when I read Native Speaker. I remember liking it, but that’s about it. And after a few months reading only Asian-American literature I was done. Until I picked up The Surrendered.
From what I remember from my Asian American literature phase, whether Korean, Chinese, Japanese or other, there were several common themes and aspects of the Asian American experience. Inability to relate with elders because of a different cultural environment and upbringing, not fitting into the American culture because of a difference in appearance, wanting to be fully American but always feeling somewhat of an outsider. Although this book did address some of those themes, it was far more than that. It focused on war’s destructive forces, death, and redemption.
Without giving too much away, the novel tracks the lives of three people: June, Hector and Sylvie. It focuses on each life individually, the experiences that shaped each person, and how their lives are irrevocably intertwine. This book shows the power of bonds made during war and the extents people to keep themselves emotionally and mentally together.