On Such a Full Sea Chang-Rae Lee

Dec 9, 2014 review (read between Dec 6, 2014 – Dec 8, 2014)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

I picked up On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee because it was one of the few books on NPR’s 2014 Best Books list that caught my interest while being available in softcover.

The story takes place in a dystopian, post-environmental-apocalyptic world. In this world, a part of mostly-abandoned Baltimore has turned into a labor colony called B-Mor, populated primarily by the descendants of a Chinese work force brought in a number of generations ago. They work hard in their walled city to produce foodstuffs en masse for the surrounding ‘Charter’ towns where those graced (deemed by the governing body) with superior physical abilities and intellect, live in relative, and often outlandish, luxury. Everything else around and in between these Charter towns and labor colonies is a lawless wasteland.

The narrator is an unnamed resident of the labor colony B-Mor, and they chronicle the life and journey of Fan, also from B-Mor. Fan is a diminutive 16-year-old girl; not terribly distinct, but one of the best divers in the prized fish farms that produce B-Mor’s primary export. Quiet, unassuming, with an air of wisdom. One day Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears. Such disappearances are rare, but not unheard of. The directorate governing both the Charters and the supporting labor colonies have been known to cause such ‘disappearances’ in the past, and it was always better not to pry. Reg was in fact whisked away by the directorate because he was found to be ‘C-free,’ C being some genetic defect that cursed the majority of inhabitants on the planet to the eventual failing of most major organs at a relatively early age. Even the sheltered Charters were not shielded from C, only able to combat the effects with expensive therapies, so it is no surprise that the directorate which served the Charters found no small interest in someone C-free. But Fan didn’t know any of this. It is merely his disappearance that causes Fan, pregnant with Reg’s child, to leave the safety of the colony’s walls in search of her lover.

Beyond the walls of her home colony, Fan goes through a series of misadventures. Yet no matter how high the odds are stacked against this small, pregnant 16-year-old girl, she is miraculously always in the presence of those that are willing to help her. Why this is the case, I don’t know. The reader is constantly reminded that beyond the walls of the colonies and the Charter towns is a dangerous world, yet Fan is always in the hands of people good enough to not take advantage (or rather, not straight away). The fact that she looks younger than she is, something which Fan herself knows and frequently takes advantage of, probably helps, but I can’t help but pigeonhole Fan as the ‘unlikely hero,’ which may or may not be the author’s intention. And as any unlikely hero’s journey, Fan’s misadventures, no matter how unlikely, guide her (relatively safely) closer and closer to her goal.

While narrating Fan’s journey, the narrator simultaneously describes life in B-Mor after Reg and Fan’s departures as seen through their own eyes, and builds Lee’s dystopian world through anecdotes and side stories, constantly alternating between the three separate threads. When taken as a hole, the separate threads vividly depict different aspects of life in this future world and hit upon hot dystopian topics such as social stratification, eugneic legislation, and health care and education systems, all while following Fan’s exciting journey. When reading it, however, the jumps from thread to thread felt incredibly disjointed and jarring. You’d be left with a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, then the narrator begins to talk about something that has nothing to do with the previous chapter for a few pages, at the end of which they make a tenuous connection with where we left off prior and continuing on with that other thread. It doesn’t help that in the sections not about Fan directly, the author seems to always use one too many lines to get a point across. I do not think that Lee is a bad writer, but his constant tacking on of what felt like a superfluous line at the end of a poetic thought made me feel like I was breathing incorrectly. Or drinking water erratically. Or being in an awkward moment for a bit too long.

I enjoyed Lee’s dystopian world, although I didn’t think it was particularly amazing. I also enjoyed Fan’s unlikely journey, all the people she met, and their misadventures. I unfortunately didn’t enjoy the storytelling, which only muddled down an otherwise interesting and exciting book. On Such a Full Sea did pique my curiosity in some of Lee’s other works, which I hope are not as disjointed in their storytelling.

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