In Chang-rae Lee’s dystopian vision of the future, America is divided into three classes living in three extremely different types of settlements. At the top are the Charters, protected cities in which the rich and successful dwell, spending their money on whatever fancy suits their whims. These people also are referred to as “Charters,” so the name can mean either a place or a person who lives there. Next are the facilities, former cities that have been turned into processing plants that provide the Charters with food, clothing, etc. For example, Baltimore has become B-Mor, has been settled by immigrants from “New China,” and now provides the Charters with fish raised according to the strictest Charter standards. And last, there are the counties, wild, desolate areas that people from the facilities or Charters fear to tread.
Fan, a 16-year-old from B-Mor, works as a diver in her city’s fish tanks. She’s known for being an uncannily strong swimmer, constantly found sitting at the bottom of a tank as she pushes her body to its limits, either as a way of bonding with her fish or because she feels she belongs down in the depths. She’s also known for dating Reg, an easygoing 19-year-old who is beloved by his neighbors for being kind and patient. One day, Reg simply vanishes from B-Mor, with no word from his family about his whereabouts. His neighborhood is slightly rattled, but they all carry on, including Fan. They soldier on with their normal, regimented, hard-working way of life, until the day Fan slips out of B-Mor’s gates and heads out into the counties to find her Reg.
The story is narrated in the first person plural, meant to represent the other citizens of B-Mor as they recount Fan’s journey. Her leaving has a ripple effect on the tranquil calm of B-Mor. First, there are whispers about what really happened to Reg, then graffiti begins to appear in random places, and then people begin to act out by rebelling against their strict way of life in a way only B-Mor could – by feeding the fish in the public ponds, purposefully ignoring the rigid rules.
However, since the narration is done by many voices combined, and the story they’re telling is simply what they heard, not what they were told by Fan herself, there is an element of unreliability. For me, that just made Fan’s story more of a myth – something told amongst the people of B-Mor that was meant to inspire them perhaps more than it was meant to be a 100% true account of her journey. The book bounces back and forth between Fan’s travels and descriptions of the unsettled B-Mor, and it’s easy to see how Fan’s legend stirs up those she left behind.
“On Such a Full Sea” starts slowly as Lee builds his world. There are very few details about what led America to this point, and I’ve seen some reviews that found fault with that, but I wasn’t troubled by it. Once Fan steps foot outside B-Mor, the story really takes off. She meets many people on her journey, most of whom have their own tragic tales, such as Quig, whom she meets barely minutes after leaving B-Mor. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that did stretch the limits of coincidence for me – but again, if it’s a myth, perhaps it’s not important how unrealistic it is. Fan’s actions give the people of B-Mor the hope to carry on after Reg’s disappearance, because if one person can say, “No, I refuse to accept this fate,” who’s to say others couldn’t do the same? I’m going to discuss spoilers below, because I’d like to get other people’s reactions, so if you’re planning on picking up the book yourself, I’ll stop here and just confirm that you should. Lee’s prose is gorgeous, the book is a fairly quick read once Fan is on her way, and I have the feeling her journey will stay with me for a while.
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While Quig’s back story had a horrifying end, and I can’t forget about that crazy acrobat family, I think it’s the introduction of the Girls that gave me the biggest “WTF?” moment. The way Miss Cathy was keeping those girls as pets gave me chills. The moment of coincidence I referred to earlier was when Fan met Oliver – it just felt too perfect that of all the Charters in the world, he’d be one she’d just randomly end up meeting. When he began looking into Reg’s disappearance, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that it wouldn’t end well, but I never suspected Oliver would try to sell his sister like that. I felt heartbroken for Fan, and the ambiguity of the ending did nothing to help.