Chang-Rae Lee. On Such a Full Sea. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.
A little over five years ago I read and reviewed Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee. I loved it, and recently came across this title by the same author.
All I can say is that On Such a Full Sea is very different. Lee is an original. It is even difficult to see that this book was written by the same writer as Native Speaker. So, did Chang-Rae Lee jump on the post-apocalyptic bandwagon?
Fan is in her late teens and lives in B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore. It is not really clear if there was a worldwide disaster or simply that the world is now ruled by a hierarchy similar to that of Brave New World. It sounds as if most of the cities were destroyed or nearly so, and survivors settled in different areas. There are some allusions to “originals” as opposed to later settlers.
The disaster may have been biological, at least part of the disaster. Everyone is concerned about hereditary diseases, and it sounds as if most people have them. Whether these were mutations caused by something like nuclear fallout or simply the effect of time, it is not clear. What is clear is that treating these diseases is a major undertaking.
The world is divided into three classes, defined by where they live and their relative access to civilization. There are the Charters. These people live in protected communities and are the movers and shakers. They earn and spend the bulk of the world’s wealth. They are educated and have the kind of jobs that the wealthy have today—as song goes, “doctors and lawyers and business executives.”
Fan is from the middle group. These are the inhabitants of the cities. They are known as Facilities because each city is known for its product or related products. In B-Mor the people mostly work in aquaculture, what we would call farm-raising fish. There is a certain amount of regular agriculture also, but under very controlled conditions. Apparently much of the earth’s soil is no longer healthy for growing things people eat.
Families are not exactly obsolete, but the people in the Facilities tend to live in clans, often with many individuals to a single house or apartment. While people do identify with their clans, there is not a whole lot of traditional family respect or love, little fraternal or filial affection.
There are also the Counties. These are the people who live outside of the urban Facilities and the villages of the Charters. They are outside the law, often forming gangs or living alone or in some kind of tribal system. This is slightly reminiscent of John and the Indians in Brave New World. The lifestyle might be reminiscent of hillbillies from a hundred years ago.
The Counties have no access to medical care or any organized justice system. At one point Fan meets Quig, a former Charter veterinarian who becomes a kind of hero to many in the Counties and even some Charters because he provides medical care and saves the lives and limbs of a number of people. He is able to create a compound of loyal followers that serves to protect these County people from marauders.
These classes are not completely closed. Not only do some people from the Charters and the Facilities end up in the Counties because of legal or financial problems, but a few in the Facilities may be promoted to the Charters. All twelve-year-olds take an aptitude test, and those who finish at the top (usually the top two percent, but it can be smaller) have a chance to join the Charters to further their education.
Those in the Counties for the most part have no education. Those in the Facilities have enough to continue the work of the facilities. Those in the Charters can go on to high schools, colleges, and universities. Those who join the Charters from a lower caste must leave their clans behind and be fostered by a Charter family willing to take them in.
Some people from the Counties and the Facilities are taken on as helpers, family workers for wealthy Charters. In some cases they are paid; in others, it more like slavery. Among the Charters, helpers can be traded or sold by their employers.
Fan has a job described admirably by Lee. She is a diver in one of the aquaculture facilities. She inspects and cleans the large aquariums and fish that live in them. She can hold her breath for over three minutes and, of course, swims with great facility (sorry, I could not help it).
Fan is not fated to stay in B-Mor, however. The economy goes south, and her boyfriend Reg disappears. She seems to think he just left B-Mor to go into the Counties. However, many people in the town think there is something more. Everyone has their DNA tested, and Reg is shown to be C-free, free of any of the hereditary diseases that everyone else in the world seems to be carrying.
Clearly, Lee has created a new world into which Fan has adventures. She leaves B-Mor ostensibly to look for Reg. They are in love, and she is, in fact, carrying his child.
For that reason, this reviewer also thought of Longfellow’s Evangeline and Manzoni’s The Betrothed (a.k.a. I Promessi Sposi). Both of those stories are about women searching North America or Italy looking for their true loves. In Evangeline they are separated because of the expulsion of the Acadians (a.k.a. Cajuns) from Nova Scotia. In The Betrothed, they are separated by war.
In the back of her mind Fan also thinks of an older brother she never met. He was one of the fortunate few to excel on the exam and leave B-Mor for a Charter village somewhere. Possibly she may find out about him as well.
There is a lot to the story. It takes a little while to get into. The narrator is a resident of B-Mor who is trying to put the story together. His or her voice comes through, but he/she notes that no one reads any more. The style reflects that. One obvious example is that the narrator does not punctuate dialogue. There are no quotation marks or dashes or even guillemets (« ») pointing out spoken words.
The reader will get used to the style, but it does take a while. The world Lee creates should be interesting enough for most readers that they will probably say that the slog was worth it even if, compared to Native Speaker, the narrator is more detached.