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Chang-rae Lee
On Such a Full Sea
Riverhead Books / Penguin Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-594-048610-4
Publication Date: 01-07-2014
354 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 01-19-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction  Fantasy  

Books are easily understood as a form of directed meditation. Immerse yourself in any book, any genre and you'll find a still place within, even as you populate it with the author's visions. The manner in which books may be our mirrors is perhaps less clear. It is certainly true that what we bring to a book matters, including who we are.

And there is "we," the narrator of Chang-rae Lee's new novel, 'On Such a Full Sea,' popping up here, in this review. Funny how that works, how it strikes readers in one way from a review, and in rather another way in a novel. It's certainly not common in novels, and that alone should be a clue that Lee is not working in a common manner here.

We, the narrator of 'On Such a Full Sea' proves to be the populace of B-Mor, in some previous world, the city of Baltimore. In this world, it's a town of the hardworking descendents of Chinese refugees who fled their chemically polluted village to take up residence in our economically poisonous environment. They've thrived, at a certain level of existence that is revealed in the narrative, as "we" tell the story of Fan, a teenaged girl, mature for her seeming age, who does the unthinkable. She leaves B-Mor and ventures into the world beyond.

Lee has a lot of fun in this novel, mixing up genres and voices and perspectives. First-person plural is not common, but Lee manages the trick of claiming the elegance and lyricism it evokes while keeping it readable. There are nicely turned bits of humor throughout if you keep a sharp, dark eye for them. This style of address also offers Lee the opportunity to do some crafty things with his world-building in terms of pacing revelations. Approach the narrative here with an eye for the lighthearted aspects of the work, enjoy the majesty on display and let the world around you disappear — sort of.

That proviso from the prose is the result of just what Lee has on offer in 'On Such a Full Sea.' It's all rather hermetic, and while there are nods to "this is how we got here," the world Lee has crafted feels more mythic than it does predictive. Essentially what we, the readers discover, along with Fan, is a version of our world where the distinctions of class and the realities of income inequality are made manifest. The brutalities inflicted by our economy are recast as violence, sometimes with devastating emotional consequences; sometimes far enough over the top to offer a darkly humorous perspective.

The characters "we" encounter are carefully wrought, starting first with Fan, our nominal heroine. Don't expect another spin on the dystopian girl hero genre; this is not an action film with car crashes and bikini-clad warriors. We only experience Fan though the mythology being written on the fly by the "we" of B-Mor. Her inner workings are inferred and not directly experienced. She is, after all, a prose creation of those who are telling her story. That said, Lee does a masterful job at slowly, almost grudgingly, turning her into a hero.

The men and women and children she encounters on her journey are another matter, and in many ways, more fleshed out than she is. It's sort of disconcerting, but the emotional wallop that some of these characters carry is intense. Lee offers one back story scene that is particularly wrenching. It's almost matched by another that is compelling, sweet and shocking. There are a lot of textures to enjoy in 'On Such a Full Sea.'

Given the ostensible story arc and genre, it's easy to mistake this book and come to looking for it to be something it has no intention of being. And even in terms of what it is and intends to be, 'On Such a Full Sea' is a challenging work. Like many mirrors, it is all too precise in regards as to showing us what we least like to see in ourselves. Lee does not make it easy to find the humor that permeates the book until you're already pretty far in; it's easy to miss the earliest instances. But 'On Such a Full Sea' manages to walk a very crafty line of self-enquiry, self-examination and overwrought satire, crafting a difficult world that is surprisingly hard to forget. The problem is that it is all too easy to just look around, and see it, here and now. We have a lot of work to do, most of which involves understanding just who we are — and how we can change that for the better.

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