Book Reviews The National

Conflicted Feelings

“The Surrendered” opens with an image reminiscent of a war photograph. An 11-year old girl is riding on top of a train, cradling her two younger siblings against the cold with a stolen blanket as they flee south with other refugees at the start of the Korean War. The image is iconic, beautiful in its way and shot through with foreboding. Nested together, the orphans are “these last of their kind.” And soon, the girl, June, is the only one left.

The novel opens up like an album of atrocities, though the stills that are hard to look at alternate with more alluring ones, in a book that has perhaps as much sex as it does death. Its characters are so convincingly etched, its story carried forward with such a momentum of empathy, like the refugee train, that it is more felt than intellectually encountered. Its author, the Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee, recently told an interviewer that he wanted “to give a certain bodily experience to the reader. Because I don’t think I can explain war.”

In this he succeeds: his words provoke what Susan Sontag, in her dissection of war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, called“the pleasure of flinching.”

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