The odyssey of a Korean War refugee becomes first the subject of, then a haunting overture to, the award-winning Korean-American author’s fourth novel (Aloft, 2004, etc.).
Lee’s introspective and interrogatory novels seek the sources of their characters’ strengths and weaknesses in their own, and their families’ stories—nowhere more powerfully than in this exhaustive chronicle of three hopeful lives tempered in the crucibles of wars and their enduring aftermaths. In a patiently developed and intermittently slowly paced narrative that covers a 30-year span and whose events occur in four countries and on three continents, the entangled histories of three protagonists are revealed. We first encounter 11-year-old June Han, traveling with her twin siblings following the deaths of their parents toward safety with their uncle’s family. June’s willed stoicism and suppression of fear serve her well in extremity, but they will have a far different effect on her later life—shaped when she is rescued by American G.I. Hector Brennan (himself in flight from the memory of a painful loss). Hector brings June to Sylvie Tanner, a minister’s wife who runs an orphanage (and whose own demons owe much to the savagery of history in another place and another time). Each character’s past, motivations and future prospects are rigorously and compassionately examined, as the author follows them after the war. In its ineffably quiet way, there really is something Tolstoyan in this searching fiction’s determination to understand the characters specifically as members of families and products of other people’s influences. The characterizations of Hector and Sylvie are astonishingly rich and complex, and the risk taken in depicting the adult June as the woman readers will hope she would not become is triumphantly vindicated.
A major achievement, likely to be remembered as one of this year’s best books.