Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
Reviewed by Rebecca Stuhr
This is Lee's second novel, his first being Native Speaker, 1995 and his third, Aloft, 2004. (We should be due for another one soon!) His main characters have been reclusive men--not rejecting company or relationships, but not able to whole heartedly embrace them either. In this novel, Franklin Hata lives in a small upscale New England town. He has been a prominent businessman engaged in civic activities. Notably, he is a single adoptive father and has never married. As the novel progresses, the reader learns more and more about the man known around town as Doc Hata. As he retires and considers the rest of his life, Hata reflects on the troubled relationship he has had with his daughter and the reasons for his current solitary way of life. These reflections take him back to his war years and his experiences as a medic during the final months of World War II. He was stationed in a remote area. The fighting is happening elsewhere, and the morale and order of his particular camp begins to deteriorate. During these final days, four women arrive at the camp. These Korean women were euphemistically called volunteers but are indeed slaves. These are the women who were known as comfort women. Lee portrays the unbelievable brutality visited upon these women as seen through the experiences of Hata. Hata is a native of Korea, adopted by Japanese parents, and is one of the few in the camp to speak the language of the women. Because of this, and his responsibilities as a medic, he forms a close, though brief and tragic, relationship with one of the women. It seems as though Hata has never shared his experiences and has perhaps submerged his recollections and feelings from this time contributing to his life-long inability to form close attachments. As we learn the traumatic details of his past, events in the present begin to overtake Hata causing him to carefully consider the relationships he now has. The choices he makes are perhaps not the making of a happy ending, but you sense that Hata is setting things right. This is a thoughtful and intensely felt novel, and like all of Lee's novels, deserves a wide readership.
A Gesture Life PS3562.E3347 G4 1999
Native Speaker PS3562.E3347 N38 1995
Aloft PS3562.E3347 A79 2004