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Witnesses Of War Can't Wash Their Hands Of Tragedy

The Surrendered

"War is a stern teacher" is a lesson Hector Brennan learns at 15, in his hometown of Ilion, N.Y. On a typical Friday night, his father, sodden with drink, quotes Thucydides and makes him promise never to go to war. That ancient lesson echoes through the pages of Chang-rae Lee's harrowing and elegiac new novel about the anguish and cruelty of war.

Although his name evokes the Iliad's Trojan hero, Hector is a doomed figure with movie-idol looks who describes himself as a "loser for eternity, world-class self-pitier, tireless batterer of men and embodied doom of women, this now wholly bereft last man standing." As a soldier in Korea in 1950, Hector ends up on the burial detail. He returns to civilian life psychically scarred by the atrocities of war and riddled with guilt.

In Lee's hands, Hector becomes a savior as well, guiding a starving girl to the Korean orphanage where he works as a handyman in the months after armistice. June Han is 11 years old when the war that still divides Korea tears apart her world. In a matter of weeks, her parents and three siblings die. She follows Hector, and both are drawn to Sylvie Tanner, a dashing and damaged young woman who runs the orphanage with her missionary husband. Hector begins an obsessive affair with Sylvie, and June, possessive of this replacement mother, wants to "be with her always." The repercussions of their passions shape their lives.

In slow-evolving scenes, Lee immerses us in the palpable universe of violence and deprivation as experienced by soldiers and civilians alike. He works methodically to show the corrosive power of witnessing. Young June, precariously lodged atop a boxcar, sees her brother and sister die after falling beneath the wheels of an overcrowded refugee train. Sylvie Tanner watches Japanese soldiers brutalize and kill her parents in Manchuria in 1934, all the while remembering her mother saying that mercy is the only deliverance.

When June tracks Hector down 30 years after the war, as she is dying of stomach cancer, it seems a bit too convenient, yet oddly inevitable. She wants him to accompany her to Italy in search of her son. Together, they make a pilgrimage to the "Chapel of Bones," a reliquary for the remains of those fallen in an 1859 battle that inspired a call for mercy on the battlefield and the founding of the Red Cross.

This array of bones, stark and artfully arranged, is an apt artistic leitmotif for The Surrendered; with impeccable language and overarching compassion, Lee has created a timeless tragedy and a triumph.

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Jane Ciabattari
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.