Book Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

It’s perhaps more laudable to simply keep heading out into the world, than always tilting to leave one’s mark on it.

ON SUCH A FULL SEA jacket.jpg

Sixteen year-old Fan had no intention of sparking a movement on the day she left the SuperCorp run city of B-More for the untamed “counties” of a post-apocalyptic United States. Or, at least, we don’t think she did. She set out in search of a boy she loved. He was taken from her, secreted away like a small animal in the clutches of a bird of prey, and the ripples of his disappearance faded too quickly as the community of B-more fought to maintain normalcy, productivity, harmony. So Fan left, navigating the treacherous counties, folding open the stories of those she met, diving the murky seas of high society life in affluent charter villages. And everywhere she went, Fan catalyzed quiet revolutions. Shifts in perspective. Blossoms of hope and fire for change. As for Fan herself, she had eyes only for the road ahead, for the honor paid to lives lost and gained, for the future.

This delicately woven story illuminated Asian culture in a way I didn’t know was possible. As a Korean American, Chang-rae Lee sees the world from the perspective of a third-culture kid: one foot in Asian culture, one in Western, not fully belonging to either. It may have been this background that equipped him so well to tell the dystopian tale of Chinese workers in a post-apocalyptic US. Who else, after all, would have thought to make the narrative voice speak as “we”, the voice of a community? What really brought this novel home, was his mastery of language, of how to weave life into each page and draw the delicate strings of theme and character through to the final page.

I loved this book. It surprised and affirmed and challenged and overwhelmed me. It made me revisit my own writing, strive to raise it to a higher standard. It taught me to understand and love Asian culture and my own “third-culture kidness” more deeply.

After reading On Such a Full Sea, I’ve added every one of Chang-rae Lee’s books to my list of books to be read.

I highly recommend that you do the same.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

  1. I also thought this was a cool book, and I love the “tilting” quote you chose at the top. The work has just such a neat perspective and format. The one thing I hesitate about is using words like “dystopia” or “post-apocalyptic” for this book. I read it more as a proposed logical future not too far from our own. I don’t think it would take one huge catastrophe or a shadowy government to cause this world, just a basic change and decay that may already be in its early stages.

    Check out my review if you’re interested: https://leviathanbound.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/on-such-a-full-sea/

    Take care!

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    1. I just read your review and appreciate your perspective on the world building Lee so effortlessly wove into the narrative. Your summary of the story is really well-done.

      The reason I finally settled into the descriptor of “dystopia” is because of the conclusions that Lee draws toward the end of each branch of this story. B-more residents certainly would never have agreed that their world was dystopian, but Fan drew back the veil they so willingly lived behind, even if only for a moment. And something deep, something essential, simply was not right.

      I don’t think there is any denying the dystopian qualities of both the counties and the charter towns, where despair, depravity, and isolation mark both the intensely rich and the desperately poor.

      Where I think you and are in full agreement is that this book as a whole doesn’t fit squarely into the narrow genre of dystopian fiction. It is far grayer and more literary than that. And THAT, for me, is part of what made it so awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well said! Even if the book more or less fits the genre, Lee did a great job of making it his own and trying to give things a fresh look. He asked a lot of questions and didn’t provide easy answers. I liked how no one type of community was considered good or bad. They were all just different based on the social and economic aspects of the time.

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