Review of “On Such A Full Sea” by Chang-Rae Lee

This story is set in a future dystopia in which Earth has been made largely uninhabitable by ecological devastation. The city of “B-Mor” (old Baltimore) was established by Chinese immigrants who came to the mostly abandoned city and remade it, cleaning it up and turning it into a food cultivation center. They provide clean and healthy products for the elites in the “Charter villages” – heavily guarded cities of palatial homes, good health care, abundant goods and services, and yet whose people are plagued by a spiritual emptiness. In between the walled areas of the labor enclaves and the rich are the “open counties,” where a wild, dog-eat-dog subsistence is the norm.


As the story opens, one of the B-Mor-ians, sixteen-year-old Fan, abruptly leaves the confines of B-Mor for the “open counties.” This follows the sudden disappearance of her boyfriend Reg. Her story is told through a rather unique style of narration employing the collective voice of the citizens of B-Mor. The delivery is that of a sort of stylized Victorian novel or a morality tale. Readers are addressed as “you” and the story is often advanced in the form of questions, such as in these examples:

“Did Fan care about such things? We can’t be certain.”

“But hold on, you might say.”

“When did this change? you ask..”

“So let us keep our attention on the small…”

“For how can it be denied that these incidents were in some tangled way inspired by Fan’s actions?”

“For aren’t all such murals as bounteous in their hopes as in their scale? Aren’t they expressions of the grandest wishes, which by definition will never come true?”

This first-multiple-person retrospective narration is interspersed with chapters told by a third person narrator who is in the moment with Fan.

We follow the “adventures” of Fan out in the open, which may be described succinctly as bleak, bleak, and bleak. There is a lot of greed and psychosis in the people Fan encounters, and because of it, consistent betrayal. Is this behavior born of desperation or is it innate, but forced under control by the strictures of civilization with its rules both overt and unspoken? This question is constantly raised by the collective narrator, but no answers are ever provided. And in the end, we don’t care. Or at least, I didn’t care. The collective narrator, previously knowing everything, suddenly stopped knowing any more of what happened, and I was grateful.

Discussion: For most of the book, the collective narrator knows things it could never know about what happens to Fan, and yet keeps making claims to the effect “We can never know what she was thinking or why she did what she did.” Maybe it was the collective narrators’ way of saying “IMHO.” Because this narrator is also bombastic and boring, and given to bloviating philosophical pronouncements on the meaning of life that can try the reader’s patience. Take this passage, for example, which is actually one of the better of such musings (being one that actually makes sense):

“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 onto 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.”

Evaluation: This is a book I disliked intensely, but I kept reading because it did have a certain literateness to it, and because I wanted to know what happened to the main character. So is it a “good” book? It isn’t one I enjoyed (and in fact, I found reading it a bit torturous), nor is it one I would recommend, but I can’t go so far as to say it’s “bad” and unworthy of reading. I’m sure it has an audience somewhere.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014


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12 Responses to Review of “On Such A Full Sea” by Chang-Rae Lee

  1. sandynawrot says:

    Well, I doubt it would find its audience with me, and probably most of your blogging audience. Just another example of a plot having potential, but then the author’s ego or style gets in the way.

  2. I don’t think this is for me either, but I just read another review from someone who liked it…so “different strokes for different folks”. LOL

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    This one has been getting lots of raves but I’ve been intimidated by it. I doubt it’s for me.

  4. I saw a review of this (in the NY Times Book Review maybe?), and at first I was intrigued — one of my plans for this year is to read more speculative fiction by authors of color. But reading more about it made me suspect I wouldn’t like it, and what you’ve said strengthens that opinion. 😦

  5. Barbara says:

    Definitely not for me!

  6. Athira says:

    I find that I struggle a lot about books with collective narration. I like such writing, but usually there is no satisfactory conclusion reached by that type of narrative.

  7. Heather says:

    Not sure if this would be up my alley. Yay for persevering, though. 😉

  8. Brooke says:

    Now I want to go read this just to see how I would react. I’ve never read any of Lee’s previous works so…I suspect I’d be just as annoyed as you.

  9. Beth F says:

    Crap. I love the premise. I think I’ll put this on the back burner.

  10. Leslie says:

    This was just an ok read for me. I liked the world building but about half way through the narrator got annoying and I never did like Fan. And then the ending was a big disappointment.

  11. stacybuckeye says:

    Well, I like the hair on the cover.

  12. lisa says:

    Sounds like a interesting premise but if you disliked it intensely that’s enough to keep me away from it since I’m hard pressed to make myself read dystopian literature anyway.

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