Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Where did I get this book? The library.

In this dystopian novel, Chang-Rae Lee depicts a future where economic and class divisions have become formalized in separate communities. The story revolves around Fan, a young tank diver in a fish farm. She is a quiet and hard-working member of her community, B-Mor, where order and family come first. B-Mor is a facilities settlement, established to provide agricultural products to the wealthy Charter villages.

The Charters hold significant power over B-Mor, determining the residents’ access to medical care and the minimum occupancy for their communal residences. A tiny percentage of students pass a test allowing them to leave for a presumably brighter future in the Charters, but ambitions are modest at best for most of the population.

When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears after a mandated medical check-up, Fan slips away from B-Mor. Their love and their fates beyond the boundaries of the settlement become the subject of a communal obsession among those they left behind.

If at this point you are imagining a breathless first-person present narrative featuring a young, action-star heroine on a mission to save her lost love, I’m going to have to stop you right there. This story is told primarily from the collective perspective of the B-Mor residents, a choice that sometimes renders the story frustratingly opaque and emotionally distant.

That being said, Fan’s journey is a compelling one, revealing a landscape marred by inequality and self-interest. Outside the safe walls of the facilities and the Charters lie the counties, where lawlessness and violence prevail. Fan uses her youthful appearance to pass for a child and demonstrates remarkable presence of mind in the face of numerous threats. Somehow she retains a quiet, centered gift for compassion that the world in all its cruelty cannot touch. Whether that will be enough remains uncertain, even in the book’s final pages.

Genre: Literary dystopia.

Read it if: You enjoy speculative fiction by literary novelists; you enjoy dystopias that explore potential outcomes of current societal trends; you like stories that raise more questions than they answer.

Skip it if: You dislike first-person plural narrators; you object to ambiguous endings; or you prefer your dystopias fast-paced and action-packed.

Movie-worthy: Maybe. It would be an unsettling indie film, for sure.

 

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