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On Such a Full Sea: A Novel Hardcover – January 7, 2014
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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
*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
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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