On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
The concept behind On Such a Full Sea is basically, in a future version of the world, society has been split into a the Counties, the Settlements, and the Charters, or in other words, a glorified class system. The poor people live in the counties, where electricity is scarce and times are hard; the settlements are made up of immigrants who work to produce items for the charters; and the Charters are the rick folks who work and compete their entire lives to prevent being banished. There’s also a C- disease (Cancer?) which inflicts everyone at some point in their lives. Trying to find a cure for C- is also behind the inciting incident and the mindset of everyone in the Charters.
The story follows Fan, a girl who lives in the settlement of B-Mor, who, when her boyfriend Reg suddenly disappears, she leaves B-Mor in search of him. Her leaving disrupts the entire community of Chinese settlers descendants, and the residents start to notice an angst and rebellion bubbling up. We then learn of Fan’s travels through the counties and finally to a Charter, with enough suspense and guessing to keep the reader turning pages.
The chapters usually begin from the perspective of a resident of B-Mor, who is the narrator of the novel. He talks about the changes the town is going through, the history of B-Mor, and the town’s supposed feelings about Fan and Reg. The language is written as if the reader is a member of the community as well, talking about characters and their actions as if they’re familiar, using “you” and “we” and “our”. They tell the story of Fan to one another as a way to understand.
It’s not that I didn’t think this novel took risks, or that I didn’t like the characters, or that it wasn’t beautifully written. Lee took risks, and I totally understand why the critics adore this novel, often rating it highly. It’s discussion of loneliness, desire, coping, storytelling, and fear is astounding and worth reading it for.
What I found difficult was the long drags of narration from the B-Mor residents, and their coming to grips with reality and the mystery behind Fan’s disappearance, as they were often long and took me away from Fan’s “adventures” and encounters with all the weirdos populating this future. It also bears to keep in mind that what that “happens” to Fan only happens to her in the minds of the B-Mor residents, as speculation based on small truths.
The ending also upset me (SPOILERS), as it left on a cliffhanger and didn’t resolve any of the main conflict with Fan. Does she ever find Reg? We don’t know, and I guess that’s the point, but I don’t have to like it.
I only give On Such a Full Sea two stars, because despite the moments I truly enjoyed, the slug between them made it difficult for me to want to continue, and the ending annoyed me. Unlike the characters and residents of B-Mor, however, I won’t be speculating over the answers by re-reading this story.