Survivors of the Korean War try to piece their lives back together.
It has been a long time since a book left me as this one has, stunned and shaken, literally trembling. Moving between the Korean War and its aftermath, to mid-'80s New York, with a horrendous flashback to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1934, "The Surrendered" is a gorgeously written tragedy about three people who pay a high price for surviving war.
It begins in the early years of the war, as civilians flee south to get behind U.S. lines. We travel with 11-year-old June Han, who along the way loses her entire family, one by one, in graphically rendered scenes. Then we are in the midst of violence with 20-year-old GI Hector Brennan, who witnesses enough mutilation and carnage to pitch him into a lifelong pit of hopelessness.
By the '80s, he's working as a janitor in New Jersey and drinking heavily. Though physically sound, he thinks "that a special scan of his abstract being would show an unsettling result, revealing a soul neither bountiful nor spare but used up, right down to nothing."
At the end of the war, he and June wash up at a Korean orphanage run by a missionary doctor, Ames Tanner, and his wife, Sylvie. Hector is well embarked on his drinking life and June has become a fierce and icy girl. Both of them fall in love with the beautiful but fragile Sylvie, who fights her own demons with the help of drugs. As a teenager in Manchuria she had watched the murder of her parents and the torture of the young Chinese man she loved. Hector observes bitterly "there was no worse loneliness than having to take mercy on oneself."
Sylvie and Ames perish in a fire whose cause we learn at the end of the novel. By this time June and Hector have come together for the last time. Their five-month union not only got her into the United States, but also produced a son, Nicholas. By 1986 June has forged a life by building a wall around herself, but is dying of stomach cancer. She is set on finding Nicholas, who disappeared in Europe eight years earlier and, according to her private investigator, has made a career as a con man and thief, at last report in Italy. After Hector loses a woman he had allowed himself to love, he agrees to accompany June on her quest, which ends at the ossuary chapel of Solferino, decorated with the bones and skulls of soldiers who had suffered and died in an earlier senseless war.
None of the protagonists finds redemption, but the harshness of their lives is lit by language so observant and wise that it renders them dignified and beautiful despite their tragic fates.
Brigitte Frase is a writer in Minneapolis.