As part of our Best Books of 2010 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
My grandmother is one of BookPage’s most devoted fans. Every month, she visits her local branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, picks up BookPage and reads the issue cover-to-cover—always scanning for my bylines. After I interviewed Chang-rae Lee in March, she immediately put a copy of The Surrendered on hold.
She asked if I thought she’d like it. Before I could fully recommend The Surrendered to my grandmother, I felt like I had to give her some background information—a warning, I suppose, or at least a preview of what she’d be in for. Today, I’m going to give the same information to you.
The Surrendered is the only book I have read (in recent memory at least) that made me feel physically ill. Lee’s descriptions of violence committed by Japanese officers in Manchuria of 1934—or by American soldiers during the Korean War—are so vile and viscerally painful to read that I had to put the book down (several times) and take a deep breath.
During these sections, I thought—why should I read this? Why would anyone want to read this?
And then I picked the book up and kept reading because Lee’s writing is so enthralling—his world is so complex and complete—that I absolutely had to know what happened to the very real characters that live through his words.
The Surrendered is told from three points of view: a young Korean girl who is a refugee of the war; an American soldier who ends up working for the orphanage where she lives; and the woman who is married to the missionary who runs the orphanage. It’s quite remarkable how well Lee inhabits these three vastly different personalities. As the characters move back and forth through time and across points of view, I did not feel a sense of disjointedness.
The novel is bleak, but there are certainly moments of beauty (and let me note that Lee’s prose is always lyrical, even if he’s writing about torture); a high point is the reflection on mercy that weaves throughout the story. Plus, the novel forces you ask the difficult questions that have been so relevant this year in the wake of earthquakes, oil spills, conflict abroad—like how can people live their lives after tragedy? After disaster?
Lee himself summed up the book best during our conversation: “It’s a book about historical traumas and how those traumas exhibit themselves and find expression in individual people. It’s a book that ends in awe of life and all that life is. Not really judging it one way or the other. Just agape. Saying: wow. Look at these people [who have suffered] and how they’ve expressed themselves.”
(And yes—I did tell my grandmother to read The Surrendered . . . but only with a strong stomach.)
Which book from our list is your favorite?