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On Such a Full Sea: A Novel Hardcover – January 7, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2014: Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is a fascinating read, in part due to the dueling instincts of the novel. The world-building is first-rate, but there is an overall feeling of allegory to the book. There is brutality in nearly every chapter, but Lee writes with such grace and skill that I often found myself just reading for the pleasure of his words. Set in a dystopian future America, where “New Chinese” have populated certain urban centers like Baltimore and Detroit, On Such a Full Sea is the story of Fan, a gifted diver who abandons the relative safety of her city to search for her disappeared boyfriend in the more lawless parts of the country. The story is narrated by a nameless voice from Baltimore (or B-Mor, as it is called in the novel), and that conceit allows the author to interject observations and commentary into the story that might otherwise seem phony. As we journey with the unassuming but strong-willed Fan, and as details are deftly revealed, Chang-Rae Lee succeeds in weaving a mesmerizing tale while revealing truths about such wide-ranging subjects as social stratification, technology, estrangement, and the reasons we tell stories. --Chris Schluep

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Lee (The Surrendered, 2010), always entrancing and delving, has taken fresh approaches to storytelling in each of his previous four novels, but he takes a truly radical leap in this wrenching yet poetic, philosophical, even mystical speculative odyssey. B-Mor is a rigorously ordered labor settlement founded in what used to be Baltimore by refugees from impossibly polluted New China. They grow stringently regulated food for the elite, who live in gated “charter” villages, surrounded by “open counties,” in which civilization has collapsed under the assaults of a pandemic and an ever-harsher climate. In a third-person plural narrative voice that perfectly embodies the brutal and wistful communities he portrays, Lee tells the mythic story of young, small, yet mighty Fan, a breath-held diver preternaturally at home among the farmed fish she tends to. When her boyfriend inexplicably disappears, Fan escapes from B-Mor to search for him, embarking on a daring, often surreal quest in a violent, blighted world. She encounters a taciturn healer bereft of all that he cherished, a troupe of backwoods acrobats, and a disturbing cloister of girls creating an intricate mural of their muffled lives. Lee brilliantly and wisely dramatizes class stratification and social disintegration, deprivation and sustenance both physical and psychic, reflecting, with rare acuity, on the evolution of legends and how, in the most hellish of circumstances, we rediscover the solace of art. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Literary best-seller Lee will reach an even larger readership with this electrifying postapocalyptic novel as he tours the country in conjunction with an all-points media and publicity drive. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (January 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594486107
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594486104
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (224 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,893 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Chang-Rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, and Aloft. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-Rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton university.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

63 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Daffy Du VINE VOICE on November 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've been a fan of Chang-rae Lee ever since reading his first book, Native Speaker. So even though speculative fiction isn't really my thing, I wanted to read On Such a Full Sea, simply because of who wrote it.

In this book, Lee has a detailed a grim, dystopian future, clearly drawing on the major issues of our day--pollution, income inequality, disease, lack of opportunity and more. The world he has created is rigidly stratified, with the wealthy Charters at the top--those who have all the opportunities and wealth, those in self-contained labor settlements, formerly major U.S. cities, whose purpose is to provide the Charters with food, and those who must fend for themselves in the counties. The heroine, Fan, is from one of the labor settlements, B-Mor, which it quickly becomes apparent was once Baltimore. The labor settlements are populated by the descendants of the "originals," who were brought over from China. There is almost no upward mobility for anyone except the Charters; however, once in a while someone from the settlements, who does exceptionally well on tests, will be plucked away and placed in a Charter community, as Fan's brother had been many years earlier.

Fan, at 16, is an exceptionally good diver, able to hold her breath longer than anyone and responsible for cleaning the fish tanks that produce seafood for the Charters. She's in love with Reg, who works in the greenhouses. In Lee's futuristic world, cancer (C-illness) is ubiquitous--everyone develops it at some point--except Reg, who for reasons unknown, seems to be impervious. One day, he disappears, and Fan does the unthinkable--she leaves B-Mor in search of him. The rest of the book is an account of her adventures, with people in the counties and the Charters.
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111 of 133 people found the following review helpful By a scientist VINE VOICE on December 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I try not to give three star reviews - I'd rather adopt a clear position. So why have I given this book three stars? Because I really wanted to like it, but I just didn't. It's not a bad novel, and I will probably continue to follow this author in the future, but I can't recommend this novel.

Briefly, this is a story that explores class relationships in a future society, specifically the relationship between lower and upper class Westerners and lower-middle class Asians. There isn't much science behind this fiction - it's definitely more soft SF than hard. It is written by a Princeton writing professor who clearly believes that science fiction needs more pretentiousness in its writing. The story starts awkwardly, settles into a nice enough rhythm in which we follow the eventful life of an uneventful character, and ends somewhat unexpectedly.

Once I got into it, it held my attention, but I was ultimately disappointed, especially with the lack of character development and the unimportance of the near future setting. It did have some of the whimsical feel of Murakami, and I'd recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore. It also had some of the depth of Nicola Griffith's early work (Ammonite, Slow River). I would recommend any of those works over this one.

If you found this review unhelpful, please leave a comment to help me understand why. I didn't want to give away too much of the plot but I'm happy to give more details if that would be helpful.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 29, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Imagine us. We are sitting on a dying earth, but our contentedness precludes us from acknowledging it. We work near tirelessly, day in and out, for the course of our lives to remain steady, static. We live communally, but barely speak with each other. Our own corner of the world is all we know and all we’re encouraged to understand. Save for the rarest cases --- fiery, untouchable brilliance, or the unexplained interest of a nebulous governing power --- we have no social mobility. And above all, we do not question our state of affairs, save in idle commentary. For what would be the use?

This is a glimpse of the world of Chang-rae Lee’s ON SUCH A FULL SEA, a novel set in a future dystopia that seems, at first, a great departure for him. Yet, although Lee here takes his first crack at speculative fiction, he still preoccupies himself with those themes that have served him so well for so long --- hope, will, betrayal, knowledge, regret --- in a setting reflecting our own, only eerily, near-apocalyptically stretched.

The novel’s narrator is a collective one: an ever-shifting group of unnamed inhabitants of a fishing labor settlement called B-Mor (once Baltimore), founded by emigrants from New China, who left to escape the pollution destroying their countryside. B-Mors are members of the second-tier of a rigid, three-tier class system that stretches worldwide. Although the dwellers of such settlements are lower than the powerful, ambitious residents of the wealthy Charter villages, they remain safer and better off than the denizens of the vastly numerous surrounding counties.

The B-Mors tell, reflectively, the story of Fan, a gifted 16-year-old fish-tank diver whose world is shattered instantly when her lover, Reg, disappears one afternoon without a trace.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Menagerie on February 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I read the first 120 pages and walked away. The story is fascinating as is the world that Lee has created. It isn't quite dystopian but the Chinese have taken over America and formed small insular communities according to a person's social and financial status. The thought that went into creating this world is amazing as is the imaginings of the consequences of such a way of life.

What I couldn't stand about the book was the way it was told. The main characters, Fan and Reg never get to speak for themselves. Everything is observed by an omniscient narrator who was a part of Fan and Reg' working class community called B-Mor. This distance, while underscoring the loneliness of their regimented and suppressed lives makes it hard to really care about the characters. I got very tired of the narrator's voice even while being impressed with the insight they provided.

The writing itself is beautiful, at times even lyrical, but the overall distance from the characters left me cold.
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