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A Gesture Life
CHANG-RAE LEE

A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee
113 reviews (1999) (368p)
ALA Notable Books - Fiction Finalist

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Book Description
The riveting story of a Japanese immigrant who leads a proper, decorous life in a New York suburb. As his life slowly unravels, he is transported back to his days as a medic in the Japanese army in World War II, and his obsessive love of a young comfort woman.

"Not since Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day has there been a novel so attentive to the interplay of dark memory and light manners...a beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book."-New York Times Book Review

"Exceptional...A beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it."--Christian Science Monitor

"A Gesture Life is the touching, multilayered rumination of an uneasy psyche. It is also a tragic, horrifying page-turner, whose evocation of wartime victims is unforgettable...a deeply involving tale."-Chicago Tribune

A Gesture Life is:

"Unforgettable."-USA Today

"Mesmerizing."-San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Masterly."-Newsweek

"Magnificent."-Newsday

"Beautiful."-Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Hugely affecting."-Boston Globe

"Remarkable."-Kirkus Reviews (starred)

One Of The Most Celebrated Novels of the Year
A New York Times Notable Book
A Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Notable Book of the Year
A Finalist for the New Yorker Book Award
An Esquire Distinguished Book of the Year
Talk Magazine's Best Book of 1999
An ALA Notable Book of the Year
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Notable Book of the Year


Amazon.com Review
Never judge a book by its cover--or, for that matter, by its name. Otherwise you might overlook A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee's fine if awkwardly entitled follow-up to Native Speaker. As he did in his debut, the author explores the dilemma of being an outsider--and the corrupt, heartbreaking bargains an outsider will make to adapt to his surroundings. The protagonist, Franklin Hata, has actually spent his whole life donning one variety or another of existential camouflage. First, as a native-born Korean, he bends over backwards to fit into Japanese culture, circa 1944. Then he attempts a similar bit of environmental adaptation in postwar America--more specifically, in the slumbering New York suburb of Bedley Run. But in neither case does he quite succeed, which gives the novel its peculiar, faltering sense of tragedy.

"There is something exemplary to the sensation of near perfect lightness," confesses this resident alien, "of being in a place and not being there, which seems of course a chronic condition of my life but then, too, its everyday unction, the trouble finding a remedy but not quite a cure, so that the problem naturally proliferates until it has become you through and through. Such is the cast of my belonging, molding to whatever is at hand."

A Gesture Life presents this chronic condition in two different time frames. In one, delivered via flashback, Hata is a medical officer in Japan's Imperial Army. Posted to a tiny installation in rural Burma, he's ordered to oversee a fresh detachment of Korean "comfort women"--i.e., victims of institutionalized gang rape. At first he maintains his professional distance, not to mention his erotic appetite: "It was the notion of what lay beneath the crumpled cotton of their poor clothes that shook me like an air-raid siren." But soon enough he's drawn into a relationship with one of the women, whose bloody and horrific denouement leaves a permanent mark on the "unblissed detachment" of his existence.

The present-tense, American half of the story revolves around Hata's life in Bedley Run, where he adopts, alienates, and finally forms a shaky rapport with his daughter, Sunny. We might expect this sort of material to pale in comparison with his wartime trauma. But oddly enough, Hata's suburban melancholia is much more compelling--and the gradual disclosure of his past, which is supposed to ratchet up the tension, seems too crude a mechanism for a writer of Lee's superlative talents. (His truest tutelary spirit, in fact, might be John Cheever, who gets an explicit nod at one point.) None of this is to dismiss A Gesture Life, whose dual narratives are written with a rare, unhurried elegance. And if Lee's splice job lacks the absolute adhesion we expect from a great work of art, he nonetheless pulls off a remarkable, moving feat: he puts us inside the skin of a man who, "if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen." --James Marcus


Other Award Winning Books by Chang-Rae Lee
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
235 reviews (2014) (368p) (Amazon Top100) (PW Fiction) (NBCCA) (ALA)
Read Reviews | Visit this book's Amazon.com page
The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
99 reviews (2010) (480p) (PP) (ALA)
Read Reviews | Visit this book's Amazon.com page
Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
77 reviews (1995) (368p) (ALA)
Read Reviews | Visit this book's Amazon.com page

Chang-Rae Lee Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 6  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 4  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 1 The Surrendered ·  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 1 On Such a Full Sea ·  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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