Being a foreign-born American I am naturally drawn to stories about identity, the notion of home and roots. So I admit being partial to Lee’s work.
I knew that On Such a Full Sea was a different novel. But I also like dystopian stories. The main character is a sixteen-year old girl and YA literature is one of my preferred genres.
I almost always read by two’s: one YA novel and one adult novel. On Such a Full Sea seemed to fit both categories.
So I was ready for the ride.
On the content:
It is hard to embark readers on an unknown world. But Lee wrote a cautionary tale so he is only pushing the frontiers of our contemporary world a little bit further.
A clever combination of current concerns such as industrial farming, mining exploitation, coal excavation, power plants, traffic pollution, lack of fresh water, natural catastrophes, and people’s migrations builds the foundation for a believable futuristic B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) where young Fan lives.
Outside of B-Mor the open counties (formerly East Coast and part of the Midwest) are a land of violence and crime.
And there are the Charter villages where the wealthiest thrive, fed by the food produced in the facilities run in B-Mor. The Charter residents are health freaks. They take pills and search for the healthiest food to prevent cell deterioration and never forget their sunscreen now that the sun is unforgiving.
A few B-Mor inhabitants are chosen, based on their skills, to move to the Charters with the understanding that they won’t return to their former communities. Fan’s older brother Liwei has been one of them. He has left B-Mor when Fan was very young so she has little memories of him.
After establishing the setting and introducing Fan through detailed descriptions – she works as a fish tank diver nurturing the fish she grows – Lee brings in Reg. But as soon as we know of Fan’s boyfriend, he mysteriously disappears. When he doesn’t show up for a few days, nobody panics. A dreamy boy such as Reg is known to wander. Only weeks later will everyone admit, without talking about it, that he is gone. Others young people, although very few, have also been “dispatched.” After Reg’s disappearance Fan is uprooted. The accidental deadly drowning of young Joseph triggers an additional important change in Fan’s life. At the same time she finds out that she is expecting a child from Reg.
From that moment Fan embarks on a quest: She must find Reg and her brother Liwei.
The rest of the novel is a succession of often violent yet deeply emotional encounters with a variety of characters met in the open counties and later in the Charters. These epic encounters are satires of our contemporary society. Each episode leads to the next one and Fan often appears to be passive as if she was floating, pushed on the high sea by events and people. The last part of the novel is focusing on Fan’s relationship with her brother Liwei Cheung, now called Oliver, his wife Betty, their three children and Oliver’s former best friend Vik.
I don’t like it when reviewers spoil the ending to a novel, so I won’t do it.
I will say, though, that Fan’s journey doesn’t end with the ending. All through the novel she is a strange girl, strong despite her small physical size and apparent passivity, determined to find Reg despite the obstacles she meets. She incarnates the unique stage of youth, when we are bold and brave enough to “take the current when it serves.”
On the form:
Lee has successfully invented an effective, fresh vocabulary to plant the setting of his dystopian novel. As he has in his previous work, the writing is skillfully crafted.
The truth of some sentences left me breathless:
“For if there is ever a moment when we are most vulnerable, it’s when we’re closest to the idea of the attained desire, and thus farthest from ourselves, which is when we’ll tread through any flame.”
I found the simplicity of some other sentences very modern, such as in the scene when Betty takes Fan shopping for a special outfit she plans to wear for her boyfriend Reg:
“…the bright yellow sundress declaring, I’m very happy!, of the knee-length cashmere sweater dress murmuring, I’ve longed for you, or the more formal lacey white gown announcing, We shall never part again. “
On Such a Full Sea is the most imaginative piece of American writing I have read since How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid.
And although the stories are very distinct and aren’t telling of the same tale, I couldn’t help but compare them.
Both are cautionary tales within tales.
Both have characters coming from Asia or living in Asia.
Both authors experiment with different storytelling styles.
How to Get Filthy Rich is written in the second person singular and most of On Such a Full Sea in the first person plural.
The narrator is omnipresent in both.
The dialogues are sparse and not really distinct from the narrative scenes.
On a last note:
When I finished the novel I was left with mixed impressions.
As a fan of Chang-Rae Lee’s previous work, this new novel took me to shaky grounds. Faithful readers are creatures of habits and I was slightly deceived.
But I read a highly imaginative and thought-provoking novel. For that I am thankful.
In terms of writing, few contemporary American writers offer such a vivid palette of emotions through finely crafted prose. I was spoiled.
Anyone who is tired of writing under the dictate of ‘show, don’t tell’ and the ‘red herring’ will be relieved. There is a lot of exposure through narration and detailed descriptions and many characters appearing in the beginning and throughout the story disappear. Some die but some simply vanish.
On Such a Full Sea is a tale within tales. All are telling of our human condition.
There is a story for everyone in this novel and anyone who likes multi-layered novels with multiple access keys will find at home in On Such a Full Sea.
I was wrong after all. Chang-Rae Lee wrote another novel about the meaning of identity and home.
Since the main character is a teenage girl I hope many young people will read On Such a Full Sea because this is, in my opinion, a story written in homage to the exceptional power and potential of youth.