MLA Platinum Award Press Release

BookBrowse Reviews On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

On Such a Full Sea

by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee X
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2014, 432 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


Against a vividly imagined future America, On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee's elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane.

Listen to the news every day, catch the headlines in the paper, and you realize it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture it happening: a complete unraveling of American life as we know it. The dystopia that Chang-rae Lee richly imagines in his striking new novel, On Such a Full Sea, is segregated into three distinct tiers. The super-rich live in communities called the Charters where every need and want is taken care of. The best privilege of all: Charters are the only ones who have access to unlimited health care. On the other end of the spectrum are the open counties, where a complete disintegration of government networks means practically nothing can be taken for granted. Straddling these extremes are cities like B-Mor, whose inhabitants are mid-level toilers living in gated communities, providing food for the Charters and going about their days with a kind of deep resignation. The only way for citizens from B-Mor to ever make it to the Charters is through extreme physical prowess demonstrated in sport, or by scoring high on an annual exam given when the kids are really young.

The fictional B-Mor is closely modeled after Baltimore, a city that has seen waves of settlement and subsequent deterioration in real life. The residents who make their way in Lee's B-Mor are descendants of refugees shipped in from a small riverside town in New China. "By the time they departed, Xixu City was made uninhabitable by the surrounding farms and factories and power plants and mining operations, the water fouled beyond all known methods of treatment," Lee writes. B-Mor's primary function is to grow and ship pristine fish and organic produce to the Charters. Among the many people who make this happen, is Fan, a woman barely out of her teenage years. As the novel opens, she works the fish tanks and enjoys the occasional Free Day with her boyfriend, Reg. One day, Reg simply disappears and Fan decides she must leave B-Mor and brave the open counties, on a quest to find her love.

As Fan makes her way through danger and the open road, she meets an assorted set of characters, each a victim of the new "anything goes" society that has evolved over time. Fan is used and conscripted for various causes and the fate she meets, crafted slowly into myth, narrated in the voice of the collective citizens of B-Mor, is one the reader gets deeply invested in.

Over the years, the award-winning Chang-rae Lee has created an impressive body of extremely diverse work - from a searing look at the fallout of war to a life lived in American suburbia. The one thread that Lee effectively mines across the board is the soul-numbing effects of alienation. Jerry Battle, the protagonist in Aloft, shares this in common with Fan in B-Mor: both are keenly aware of their place in society, lived mostly on the outside looking in. "The funny thing about this existence is that once firmly settled we occupy it with less guard than we know," the B-Mors point out. "We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides into it, a secret span that deepens the original's stamp. We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up." Full Sea succeeds at painting this isolation, this attention to wearying toil above all else.

Where Sea really scores however, is in outlining the deep political costs of such alienation. In a society gone dangerously awry, Lee implies the worst kind of sin is apathy. Yet in a deeply regimented world such as the one presented in Sea, what capacity for action does an individual truly have? There's a reason, after all, that Lee relies on the collective "we," the citizens of B-Mor, as his narrator.

The book's title is borrowed from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

"On such a full sea are we now afloat," Lee points out, and it can make or break our fortunes. The parallels to real life are uncomfortably close; it's Lee's version of terror that he does so well - one that creeps up on the reader insidiously.

Even in Full Sea's dystopia, however, all is not lost. There are "hopeful flashes, which are, in the end, what lights our way through this ever-dimming world," the B-Mors point out. Besides, things could be a lot worse. They could be trying to make it in the lawless open counties. Or living in D-Troy.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2014, and has been updated for the November 2014 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Join Now!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    Delayed Rays of a Star
    by Amanda Lee Koe
    Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays of a Star begins with a late-1920s photo of three women at a party in ...
  • Book Jacket: Sleepovers
    Sleepovers
    by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
    In Ashleigh Bryant Phillips' debut story collection, Sleepovers, it can be difficult to keep tabs on...
  • Book Jacket
    The Beekeeper of Aleppo
    by Christy Lefteri
    In Christy Lefteri's sophomore novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, the author introduces readers to ...
  • Book Jacket
    Cantoras
    by Carolina De Robertis
    Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis follows five characters who share a house, troubles, joys and parts...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Voyage of the Morning Light
    by Marina Endicott

    A sweeping novel set aboard a merchant ship sailing through the South Pacific in 1912.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
by Christy Lefteri

This moving, intimate, and beautifully written novel puts human faces on the Syrian war.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Of Bears and Ballots

An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics

A charming account of holding local office with an entertaining, quirky cast of characters.

Enter

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

A S Louder T W

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.