On Such a Full Sea – Review

Cover for On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea
Chang-Rae Lee

You will enjoy On Such a Full Sea if you love literary prose and complex explorations of identity and race, but if you want fast pacing and an emotional connection to the characters, you may want to look elsewhere.

My result: Did not finish at 33%.
Unrated - Did not finish

The background concept of this dystopian novel is insightful and thought-provoking. In near future America, society is strictly stratified by class. The rich live in walled Charter communities with every amenity, as long as they can afford it. Urban cities have been repurposed as self-contained labor facilities, manned by the descendants of Chinese workers fleeing their own environmentally ruined land. Everyone else lives in the Open Counties, your typical scrounge for survival with dwindling resources dystopian landscape.

The writing style is lyrical and pleasant to read, lending a beauty to distant narration and everyday events. If you enjoy literary style prose, this may be enough to get you past the book’s shortcomings.

There were some interesting meditations on identity, as Fan leaves the contained world of B-Mor (aka Baltimore) and heads out into the Open Counties. Eventually, she will reach a Charter village as well, but I didn’t make it that far.

Nothing happens. Due to the extreme distance of the narrative style, nothing happens in present time. Fan’s journey is looked back on as a legend of B-Mor history, more narrative summary than story, with a lot of speculation as to what actually happened. In three hours of listening time this is the sum total of what’s happened: her boyfriend disappeared, she left, she got grazed by a car, she’s been taken into an Open Counties settlement.

Characters are viewed distantly, with little emotional connection. As part of that same narrative distance, the reader is given no access to character’s interior thoughts, making it hard to understand their motives or care about their difficulties. The narrator is a nebulous voice of future B-Mor, looking back on the birth of a legend, and as a vague collective voice, it is just as impersonal.

By one third in, I was forcing my way forward and dreading every moment. The writing itself is strong enough that I could have forced myself to continue, if it were only a problem of pacing. But without an emotional connection to the characters, I found no reason to find out if anything did, eventually, happen to them.

Recommended Titles for On Such a Full Sea

Similar titles I DO recommend:

  • Finnikin of the Rock – Fantasy trilogy which explores issues of national and personal identity in a kingdom shattered by war. Compelling and thought-provoking.
  • Wool Omnibus – Dystopian science fiction that packs a lot of emotion into a fast-moving, well-written sequence of connected short stories and novellas.
  • Oryx and Crake – A dystopian classic by one of literary science fiction’s darlings, Margaret Atwood. Beautifully written, well paced, with strong characters.

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