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3.6 out of 5 stars
On Such a Full Sea: A Novel
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62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 17, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine 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.

On Such a Full Sea is based on an original concept, and Lee's literary gifts are on full display. (The man can write!) But I found the pacing rather slow in many places, and felt my usual confusion with the genre, not always sure what he was referring to. I also wasn't sure what made Fan so circumspect and perfect in so many ways--it was never explained. The book is told from the point of view of Fan's relatives (I think), left behind in B-Mor, where she became something of a legend. It's never clear how the narrators could know what they do about her activities after leaving the settlement. There is also only passing reference to an uprising of sorts that takes place after she leaves, so it wasn't clear to me why it happened, other than various policy changes the governing directorate made, or why and how it died down. And the ending leaves much up in the air.

This would be a good book for fans of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and anyone looking for a different kind of read.

At one point I considered granting it only three stars, but the writing is so good and the concept so original, I've relented and rated it four.
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103 of 124 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 1, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine 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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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
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. In reaction, what Fan does to B-Mor is simply unthinkable: unwilling to accept the illusions of safety in a society in which she has no say or control, she leaves.

Venturing off into the counties, she travels far and wide in search of Reg and discovers the chaos that reigns outside the walls of her home settlement. The counties are untamed and unshielded from an environment shattered by the failures of previous cultures and ignored by the governing bodies of the world --- here, the seemingly incurable C-illness that ravages the human genetic makeup is less easily managed. During her travels through the wild and eventually a Charter village, Fan runs constantly into danger, including a medical commune where, desperate for supplies, the residents use children as currency, and a family who hoards people as we keep pets.

Throughout the novel, Fan stares stolidly into the face of these terrors, and her character remains cryptically self-certain and driven, despite her drastic ordeals in what the narrating B-Mors call “this ever-dimming world.” Yet the narrators themselves make up for this, noting this mythic quality in Fan as they tell their own parallel tale of how they have begun to chafe at the confines of their predetermined, prepackaged lives in the B-Mor settlement. They see in Fan’s ostensibly rash decision to abandon her home the capacity for hope, for dreaming of something different --- an ability they, as a culture, have never been allowed to have.

And this is the great achievement of ON SUCH A FULL SEA. Yes, the novel is gripping and compelling, the characters rich and scenarios memorable, but it is in the story’s telling --- literally in the way in which it is told --- that we find the writer’s true brilliance. The relationship between B-Mor and Fan is symbiotic, even if neither is entirely able to grasp it, and on occasion it is difficult to determine whether Fan’s story is truly hers, or if the settlement’s tellers are simply conjecturing, unable to keep the possibility of her movement, ever onward, from their minds. In the end, it is hard to know. For as the B-Mors remind us, “a tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now.”

Reviewed by John Maher
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 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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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 15, 2013
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Mr. Lee's new novel is so full of smart, speculative fiction ideas, I'm somewhat amazed that I'm not giving it five stars. Extrapolating out our current class and culture divide to three intertwined social constructs, bound together by commercially reinforced corporate-political overseers, is brilliant. In many senses, we're already there, but On Such a Full Sea distills it into story in order to make it even more clear.

Likewise, the protagonist, Fan, and narrator of the novel, her original community, the urban wasteland turned Socialist Capitalism collective known as B-Mor, are ingeniously realized themes. Fan is a Zen-like cipher whose abilities made her excellent at her job in B-Mor and throughout the novel both attract acquaintances and enable her to survive and thrive in the circumstances she encounters. The people she left behind are like any mass of humanity viewed as a group, occasionally agitated but ultimately more concerned about their day-to-day existence than grand notions of right and wrong.

Fan's story is amazing and at times thrilling. There's relatable human drama in the time she spends in each of the modes of living in her world. But there's also over-the-top perils that seem contrived as much to provide additional shock as they are to contribute to the novel's themes. In the cases where they appear, they stick out and distract from a message that the author had already successfully presented, without adding any thrills.

And I guess that's why I ended up giving On Such a Full Sea less than the highest rating. For as inventive and important as the book was, and as beautiful as Chang-Rae Lee's prose can be, there were too many times that I considered putting it down, or wished that we could fast-forward some narrative aside or dystopian scene, or struggled to relate to Fan as a character instead of as a Koan.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I had high hopes for Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. A literary author turning his hand to a post-apocalyptic tale that would focus less it seems on zombies and cannibals etc., but take the opportunity to make some searing points about class and globalization and other current issues. But has been the case with a distressingly large number of my reads lately, while I ended up appreciating the starting premise and also what Lee was trying to do, he lost me in the execution.

On Such a Full Sea is set in the not-too-far future U.S., which has roughly broken down along class lines into three segments of society. The one-percenters live in luxurious, protected enclaves called “Charters.” Their food, and one assumes other items (we only see the food one), are produced in worker towns. And the rest of the country—wild, dangerous, left to itself, is made up of “the counties.” The novel is narrated by an unusual plural-first-person: the populace of B-Mor one of those food-producing worker colonies. B-Mor is the former Baltimore, which was near-abandoned until workers were imported from China several generations ago. The protagonist is a young girl named Fan, who does what is nearly impossible to imagine—she leaves Fan, seemingly (though it is not clear) in search of her lover Reg, who disappeared soon after the Charters discovered he might be immune to the “C-disease” that everyone has and eventually dies from. Fan’s episodic journey from one settlement type to another and finally to the third is narrated as almost a fable by those she left behind in B-Mor (how they know what happens is left unexplained), both with regard to her adventures but also in regard to the impact her absence has on B-Mor’s community and its relationship to the Charters. As they say: “we can’t help but build upon what is known, our elaborations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves.”

Her departure’s impact on B-More was without a doubt my favorite part of the novel and might have been the only aspect where I felt On Such a Full Sea mostly succeeded. Lee does an excellent job of showing the slow, subtle effects upon the B-Mor community. It is a quiet impact even at its “loudest” moment, and then (perhaps much to many readers’ dismay—it certainly was to those in my reading group), that impact seems to dissipate either entirely or not-so-entirely, depending on one’s interpretation (I fell into the latter category). I liked the slow pace of the change, the quietness of it, the tiny steps forward and backward and I also liked the idea that small, seemingly inconsequential lives and events (Fan + Reg’s disappearance) can ripple throughout a society. Unfortunately, that was, as I said, about the only element of the book I responded positively toward.

Lee spends next to no time on how this America came to be, though there are spot references to global warming, the rise of powerful corporations (especially agri- and pharma- corps). While part of me actually liked the way those sort of things played as mere side allusions in terms of their individual references, I never really felt the world held together as a real one. It felt a bit like the western town at the end of Blazing Saddles. For those unfamiliar with the movie (and shame on you), a better analogy might be as if I picked up the tools/materials of a master carpenter and built a chair that appears fine to the eye, but collapses once someone sits in it. In this case, they were the tools and materials not of a carpenter but a genre-writer. That’s not to say non-genre authors shouldn’t ever pick up a hammer (or FTL drive), but that they might be surprised how much study and practice is entailed in doing it well. In the case of On Such a Full Sea, it just seemed to me that the world, when examined too closely, revealed some cracks and called up some inevitable questions.

While I did like some of the ways Lee used this futuristic setting to make some points about our current society—upper and middle-class competition, testing, our obsession with food purity, the way many of our goods are made by workers in terrible situations—at times the targets felt a bit easy or the targeting a bit too on the nose.

These probably would have been minor complaints had the novel grabbed me more fully, but both the narration style and the characterization had their own issues, meaning they couldn’t make up for the weak world building. I have no issue with the choice of plural first person, as I’ve run across several examples where it works quite well, such as The Virgin Suicides or (if I recall correctly) The Dress Lodger. But here, the voice was just too flat and too often felt either contrived or faux profound, or both.

Fan didn’t help matters, in that she is one of the most passive characters I’ve come across in some time, showing initiative once when she leaves the town (though it’s a very muddied “initiative”) and then only one other time in the entire novel, and that time feeling wholly out of character from what came before or after. Now, I think that part of the reason for this is that narrative voice, for in many ways (perhaps in fact solely that way), she is seen as more symbol that real-life person. Nor is she meant to be heroic; she is a small (literally and metaphorically) person. As the narrators realize: “she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword . . . She is one of the ranks, the perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person.” But that makes for a very thin tightrope for an author to walk—to have us engaged by or care much about a character that never really comes alive—and I can’t say Lee succeeded here.

Pacing is a problem, with a very slow beginning, so much so that it was a real struggle to continue. And I say this as one who is generally a fan of slow and quiet. Implausibilities and coincidences mar the plot at various points, which I will not detail so as to avoid spoilers. Though I will mention that simply pointing out via narration that something would be a heck of a coincidence doesn’t actually make it less annoying when it does happen. Really authors. It doesn’t. Trust me.

As I said above, I liked much of what was intended here, especially that portrayal of a small community slowly evolving, but the execution left me more than a little cold. And of the six of us in the book club, I probably responded most positively to it. On Such a Full Sea has garnered lots of praise though, so perhaps you want to keep that in mind. I, however, can’t quite recommend it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Chang-Rae Lee’s prose in his novel, On Such a Full Sea, delighted me in three ways. The society he describes in the near-future America he creates in this novel provides a plausible trajectory from our current situation. Environmental decline, stratified social classes isolated by economics, and brutal self-interest prevail over any sense of community life. Second, the journey of protagonist Fan provides the plot and structure of the novel in ways that ranged from the mythical to the typical behavior that we recognize in each other. Finally, Lee’s lyrical prose led me to re-read some sentences with great joy and admiration at his skill. Fans of literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this finely written book.

Rating: Five-star (I love it)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This book is amazing, six months after reading it I still find myself thinking about the concepts it presents often, especially as they relate to equity of resources, healthcare and education in capitalist countries, the structure of modern society, the impact of our environment on our bodies, and humans' never-ending attempts to extend our lifespans. Worth adding to your book collection if you're an avid reader of any type. It's fiction, but the issues are very pertinent and will give you a lot to think and talk about. I can't wait to see what Chang-Rae Lee writes next.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2014
Format: Hardcover
ON SUCH A FULL SEA is set in some future time when the city of Baltimore has been transformed into B-Mor, and is part of a landscape divided into three main areas - planned cities such as B-Mor, the Charter areas, and the country. The first two areas are planned down to the last detail: streets are ordered, the food is sanitized, recreation facilities are carefully arranged. Absolutely nothing is left to chance. The plot - constructed in a picaresque format - concerns sixteen-year-old Fan, a proficient diver who leaves B-More in search of her boyfriend Reg. She experiences a series of adventures with different groups of people, and comes to realize just how standardized the world around her actually is. The term 'free will' seems to be completely alien; it is perceived as something inimical to the future order of the state. Chang-rae Lee conjures up a world dedicated to consumption and capitalism, whose people - if they are sufficiently well-off - regularly shop for commodities in order to strengthen their public image. Appearance is everything; private lives are kept resolutely hidden. Although the Charter society - in particular - pretends to be democratic in structure, it is actually highly autocratic: the family where Fan lives for a certain period of time is dominated by Miss Cathy, who keeps her own private harem of girls, none of whom are allowed to be exposed to natural daylight, let alone run outside. One would expect Fan, as an independent-minded young woman, to make strenuous efforts to challenge this status quo; instead, she understands the value of passive resistance. The girls need looking after, especially when two of them are stricken with a life-threatening illness. The story is told in the past by an unnamed narrator from the B-Mor community, who spends some considerable time at the beginning of each chapter reflecting on the significance of Fan's picaresque journey, and what it tells the narrator (as well as the fellow-residents of B-Mor) about issues such as free will, community living and urban futures. At one level ON SUCH A FULL SEA is a highly engaging thriller; at another a chilling speculation on how technology, if left unchecked, could take over our entire lives. Very well worth reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon July 31, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
In On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee's first foray into the world of the dystopian novel, we find ourselves in America at an unspecified time in the future. The country has split into 3 distinct classes who occupy 3 types of cities.

The upper class, known as Charters, occupies gated cities and enjoys the bulk of the nation's wealth, healthy food, and good medical care, as well as boasting safe streets, large homes (which vary from the nice to the uber nice). While they seemingly have all, there is an element of angst ridden competition in this upper echelon, with kids being tested and ranked from the time they enter school for the best opportunities.

We are immediately introduced to the middle class as we begin to learn story of Fan, the novel's protagonist. She is a resident of B'more, the city once known as Baltimore. We learn that due to environmental disasters in China, many Chinese come to inhabit this and other old and largely abandoned industrial sections of major American cities, renovating whole sections with a communal style of family living. The middle class in B'more farms much of the fish and food for the Charter cities, and those who hold these farming related jobs are considered fortunate. These old cities are also gated and guarded, but there is nowhere near the opportunity for the acquisition of wealth available to the Charters. There is one glint of hope for upward mobility however, in that people from these settlements can test their way into Charter society by scoring in the the top 2 percent (including the scores of the highly educated Charter kids) on a standardized test. The rare, successful candidate is then adopted into a Charter family and never seen again by his settlement family. These rare successes are celebrated and are a lifelong source of pride in the settlement communities even though they are lost to the community forever.

The third class is made up of those who live in the Counties where there is little to no government or law and where might largely makes right. People are bartered as cash for payment in medical services etc..., crime is prevalent, and access to food and water is limited.

The novel follows the saga of Fan as she runs away from B'more in search of her boyfriend Reg who has been taken by the government without explanation. It is through her adventures, as she moves from her settlement to the counties and eventually to the Charters that we learn more fully about each, and are confronted with many of the horrors and injustices present in each. I was at times reminded of McCarthy's The Road and Saunders' The Semplica Girl Diaries (sans the comedy), though Lee's work is certainly not derivative.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that it is told from the WE, as if the voice of the whole B'more community is relating the tale. As a result, we don't get into Fan's head the way we would in other narrative structures. This is likely behind some of the complaints you may read in reviews of this novel that Fan's character is flat. I believe that this was intentional and that it wasn't intended to be a story about Fan as much as it was the story of a community who uses Fan to describe their world and society. A very interesting structure and successfully employed.

It doesn't take long to realize that the 3 classes aren't so terribly different from the way the world functions now, and On Such a Full Sea provides the reader with ample opportunity to ponder the benefits and stresses of each. From the depression and disillusion of the counties, to the manipulated contentment of the settlements and the ethically bankrupt, frenetic and performance driven Charters we get a look at one possible extrapolation of the direction of our current world. A very interesting and worthwhile read.
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