This is a magnificent novel, a 2010 work that ranges across more than thirty-five years, from Korea to New York City to the hills of Italy, with a dip into the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. It also ranges from the desperation of youth to the resignation of old age, from the pain of loneliness to the vitality of sex to the absence of love and the return of pain, and then from the pursuit of dreams to the encounter with reality, a reality ranging from the threat of death to its inevitability. Finally, it is about Korean children and American adults, with the reader identifying with each individual we meet, individuals who represents humanity, not their given nationality.
At its heart, this is a story about June Han and Hector Brennan. They are introduced as a Korean girl of 11 and an American handyman who was a failure as a soldier. They are thrust together at the end of a powerful first chapter in which she tries desperately to save her mother and three brothers and sisters in the confusion of advancing and retreating Korean armies in 1950. The reader anticipates a letdown when the author quickly switches to New York City thirty-five years later, where June is dying of stomach cancer. But interest quickly renews when figures of the past return, and she hangs on to life in order to reunite with her grown son who has fled to Europe.
What happened at the orphanage to which June and Hector were assigned a generation earlier is the key to these later events. Back there, we meet Ames and Sylvie Tanner, he a missionary in charge of the orphanage, and she, a beautiful wife but unmoored by her own wartime experiences as the daughter of a missionary in the China of the 1930s. For at the orphanage an emotional triangle builds that will determine the fate of these characters. This means that June courts a relationship with Sylvie, wishing to persuade Mrs. Tanner to take her back with her to the States when she and her husband leave Korea, while Hector begins a passionate affair with Sylvie to make an emotional connection in a world that has long consigned him to failure.
Lee builds reader interest by revealing these developments quite slowly, much of it indirectly as he rebuilds the intervening years lived by June and Hector, while also focusing on the running of the orphanage and the relationships among the orphans and the administrators. Indeed, Lee’s skills as a novelist shine brilliantly here, as he switches back and forth in time, evoking both the psychology of his characters and the unique Korean landscape, as well as the personal rivalries and the emotional tensions that pervade the orphanage. The emphasis is on the humanity of life rather than on the integration of one culture with another, as in previous Lee novels. And it leaves a reader like me envious of his probing, introspective skills.
There is much wartime violence in this novel, but much is also left, to the reader to interpret. As is the sex, whose description is often circumspect even if the act is obvious. Thus, Lee often describes the preliminaries of torture or seduction but then leaves the actual violence to the reader’s imagination. This applies to the fate of Sylvie’s family and to a child’s vengeance, one concealed completely and the other held back until near the very end. The very last paragraph, in fact, describes another death in the terms of a metaphor, a desperate running for a train which repeats that character’s equally frantic effort to catch a real train in an early chapter.
The meaning of the title is also elusive. It presumably refers to an acceptance of fate and a surrendering to one another. June to her son and the cancer that foreshadows her destiny in the New York and Italian scenes. Hector to June and the alcoholism and despair that has colored all his life. And Sylvie to Hector and the desperation that colors the emotional poverty she lives with. Except, none of this is obvious, for these characters take on life with a stubborn hope. And the novel reminds us of a similar hope within the human struggle for survival.
June thus seeks to re-establish her relationship with her son abroad. Hector seeks a kind of redemption by helping June as her death approaches. And Sylvie seeks the emotional fulfillment that life has deprived her of. Each is a survivor of the violence of war, as each seeks in acceptance a hope that will justify the life they have endured. And behind their desire to survive is also a hope for mercy, a mercy that can release one from one’s misery. As Sylvie’s mother told her: “There is a surplus of mercy in the world. We need only to learn how to give it.”
The jacket describes this as a novel “exploring the themes of identity and belonging, war and memory, love and mercy…a story about how love and war can echo through a lifetime.” This, indeed, is what appealed to me, the broad scope of this novel that has nothing to do with Americans in Korea or a Korean surviving in America. It is about the weaknesses in people and their hidden strengths, about the pursuit of love and the flight from death, and about how the trials and memories of youth influence our decisions as adults.
This novel apparently took five years to write. One can understand why. From the emotional and psychological reverberations from one era to the next, the moving back and forth between those eras, and the depths that are explored within each era, all this required a deep probing of this complex subject matter in which past and present exist together but are told separately.
The complexity also brought differing opinions from critics. One thought June, with her early stubbornness, was the most interesting character. Another thought Sylvie was “the most touching” because of how she has accommodated to life. While still another thought the adult Sylvie “congeals into a cliché” from a romance novel. My own reservation concerns the relationship between June and Hector. He is gradually reveled as having fathered June’s son, but a scene in which she apparently seduces him is more abstract than clear, nor is it clear why she sees him as a rival for Sylvie’s affection, since the emotional tie she seeks is of a different kind. And, finally, an apparently brief marriage and return together to the States is only implied.
This novel does make me interested in seeking out Lee’s subsequent works. He is no longer interested in simply identity and belonging. He is interested in the more universal qualities of humanity: the different avenues of love and the search for mercy and fulfillment. (July, 2018)