05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The Surrendered" by Chang-Rae Lee: Festering Scars of War

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee is an epic novel about the personal costs of war. The three main characters, June, Hector, and Sylvie, have all experienced the horrors of war up close, June as a young refugee during the Korean war, Hector as an American soldier fighting in Korea, and Sylvie as the child of missionaries during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Hector finds June half-dead on the road as the Korean war is ending and brings her to an orphanage where Sylvie and her husband will soon come to serve as administrators. A strange triangle of love and need develops between the three of them, and the tragic conclusion of that triangle will forever haunt those who survive.

The maiming caused by war is not only physical but also mental, as we see in the tortured lives led by June, Hector, and Sylvie. Using extremely graphic and detailed accounts of each character's wartime trauma, Lee then uses the horror of what they experienced as explanation for the people they become and the half-lives they lead. He brings the grisly Battle of Solferino into the story as metaphor for the cruelty done in battle and the need for succor for those left on the field, more dead than alive (the Battle of Solferino was the impetus for the founding of the Red Cross as an agency of mercy in times of cruelty). But any succor offered to these three fails to provide the needed balm. Any momentary relief they find in each other or in the arms of another, is short-lived, making the subsequent loneliness that much worse.

War is horrible, as Lee's historically based descriptions of each character's own unique hell demonstrate. But as Lee himself knows from his own family history, war victims have incredible capacity to survive, and even to thrive, despite the wounds left behind. In a true incident Lee borrows for his novel, his father fled the violence of the Korean War atop a boxcar train packed with refugees; when his younger brother fell from the train, his leg was cut off by the moving wheels and Lee's father held the boy in his arms until he died. A horrible experience and yet Lee's father went on to raise a family of his own in the United States, talking little about the Korean War and focusing on the future through his children and their accomplishments. Such a life doesn't make for a dramatic novel but this real story of survival moves me more than did the hyperbolic fiction of June, Hector, and Sylvie.

The Surrendered is powerfully written and left me with unforgettable images of war, indelible creations of character, and jarring propositions as to the nature of survival. The question of survival is so relevant in these times of natural and manmade disasters: how do we sustain both the body and spirit of victims of pain, loss, and catastrophe? In a recent interview, Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke of the difference between optimism and hope, explaining that hope "is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." In The Surrendered, there is no optimism -- not one shred of it -- but there is hope. And as I think about it, I realize an optimist would never surrender, always sure of eventual victory, whereas one with hope would surrender, hopeful of the mercy to be shown. Surrender is made in The Surrendered, the three characters all trying at some point to put down their defenses and hopeful that mercy will release them from their misery. The mercy received is slight, too late, and largely ineffectual, and yet the offer of it is proof of its existence. In the end, Lee does get to a truth with his novel, no matter how hyperbolic and tortured the path he uses to get there: as the mother of Sylvie told her long ago, there is a surplus of mercy in the world. We need only to learn how to give it.