War is a stern teacher." Hector's father quotes Thucydides in a rare sober moment. But for Hector, an American who fights in the Korean war and June, a Korean child whose family dies in it, there are no lessons, only brutality, dislocation and chaos.
This novel begins in 1950 with 11-year-old June and her younger brother and sister huddled on the top of a boxcar with other refugees. Their parents have been killed and they are nearly starving. June is rescued by Hector, who brings her to an orphanage run by missionaries. The war has made her too hard to ever be adopted, yet she and Hector, who ends up working as a handyman at the orphanage, share a love for Sylvie, the beautiful and fragile missionary wife who has seen her family killed by soldiers in Manchuria.
All wars are eternally present in this novel, which moves around from 1950s Korea to the Japanese invasion of China in 1934 and back further to the horrific battle of Solferino in the 19th century. It shoots forward to New York in 1986 where June has become a successful antiques dealer, and Hector lives a dissolute life working as a janitor for a Korean businessman. There seems very little to link them beyond a marriage of convenience which allowed June entrance to the US and a son from one night's union.
Yet both seem invincible: unlike his namesake, Hector feels he can never be destroyed, and June remains a resilient fighter even when a stomach tumour, like the hunger she suffered during the war, is devouring her. Their survivors' guilt becomes an almost superstitious fear of damaging those they love.
There is no political message here beyond the words of Hector's father, "Never go to war." With both sides of these conflicts corrupt and brutal, war can seem inevitable, a kind of natural disaster. Heroism and selflessness are luxuries in scene after scene of murder, rape and deprivation. Yet Sylvie remembers her pilgrimage to the Italian village of Solferino whose "blood-soaked ground had compelled the bloom of the Red Cross". In Sylvie and to some small degree in Hector and June, compassion survives.
In his fourth novel, Korean-American Chang-Rae Lee writes with compelling directness, his spare style acting as a counter to the disorder he describes. His vision of June, the tough girl who outwits death but never finds the grace and love she craves, is the most realised. Hector is less interesting in his self-destructive drunken brawling, his reaching for women as a balm for his guilt. Their scenes of tenderness are sensitively written and become especially moving when contrasted with Hector's violence and June's cruelty towards the other children.
The plot appears contrived and unbelievable in places. There are too many scenes of casual cruelty, so that the reader becomes almost desensitised. The beauty of this novel is the way Lee translates these flaws into luminous images: June's dive back into life on the train, and Hector's transforming discovery of the bones of soldiers which ornament the church of the war dead in Solferino.Reuse content