On Such a Full Sea

In On Such a Full Sea Chang-rae Lee–who, in my opinion, is one of the best writers currently living–writes a richly imagined, deep, compelling, yet utterly readable novel about a young girl’s quest that becomes part of the defining mythology of a community.

Lee is a literary master, but his work is never precious or pretentious.  Rather, his skill is in crafting writing that reminds you of a Swiss watch–so many perfect pieces working together so exactly that you could overlook the intricacy because the whole thing is so elegantly and precisely designed.  In On Such a Full Sea, Lee weaves together themes of identity, class, society, purpose, social mobility, community, individuality, and achievement in the context of a richly imagined, fast-paced story set in a dystopian American future.

Lee’s previous books were set in the past or present, but what the imagining of a future world does is free the author to express his views and work through his ideas of human nature and meaning without the constructs and blindspots of a contemporary or historical setting.  Futuristic settings allow authors to imagine where our current trajectory might take us, and so offer comment on ideas and philosophies that might not grab us if they were in a more familiar context.  Even if you don’t normally go in for dystopian futures, the novel is so well written and the story so gripping that you would probably enjoy it anyway.  But if you do like reading for themes and ideas, this would be a great book to try.  

Apart from Lee’s amazing prose, I thought the choice of narrator was amazingly conceived.  The book is told in the voice of a community, and I was often reminded of the chorus in a Greek play.  The voice is also mirrored by the fish the main character works with–if you read the book you could spend some time considering how Fan’s relationship to the B-Mor community parallels her relationship to the fish.  Because Lee chose to tell the story in the community voice, you also see as you read that Fan’s story is becoming part of the community’s mythology, and shaping it’s understanding of itself.  So as you read you see Fan changing and the community changing in response, or perhaps it’s the community changing and trying to understand itself by creating and embellishing Fan’s story.  What seems lost on some Amazon reviewers is that the frame for the story is the community–and when a community tells a story it’s told as a means of understanding and identity and putting meaning and context to events more than as a just-the-facts narrative.

There is so much going on in this book, and yet it’s such a highly readable and well-paced story, that I’m still marveling at Lee’s accomplishment. On Such a Full Sea is definitely going on my top fiction picks for this year, and I highly recommend it.


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