“The more we follow her journey, the more realize she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword; she is not the bearer of wisdom and light; she does not head the growing column, leading a new march. She is one of the ranks, this perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person in whom we will reside via both living and dreaming. ”
Fan lives in the grow facility of B-Mor, a closed community built several generations ago for the purpose of supplying farmed fish and produce for the Charter towns and villages where the wealthiest and most privileged members of society live. Fan is only sixteen, but she has already worked for several years as a diver in the tanks of fish, and she is very good at her job. Her boyfriend, Reg, also works in the facility, tending to the plants that grow above the tanks. Then one day, Reg disappears from B-Mor without a trace, and though Fan tries to find out where he has gone, no one seems to want to acknowledge his absence. So Fan makes the decision to leave B-Mor, perhaps to find Reg, perhaps to understand the world and the system she lives in, newly made aware of their deficiencies by Reg’s disappearance. With only a vague plan as to how she will proceed, Fan leaves B-Mor behind, thinking perhaps to seek help from Bo Liwei, the older brother she has never met because he tested out of B-Mor before she was born, earning the opportunity to be adopted into a Charter family and become a Charter citizen himself. Both the free counties outside B-Mor and the Charter communities scattered throughout are hostile, unfamiliar territories in their own way, and Fan will meet friends and enemies in equal numbers as she tries to find out what has happened to Reg.
Described a certain way, Chang-rae Lee’s novel would sound like a typical YA dystopian, about a young girl who challenges a system that she didn’t realize was broken until it impacted her life personally. Certainly the description of Fan herself will be familiar to YA readers; she was “not beautiful but rather distinctive in her presence.” Like many of dystopian YA’s heroines, Fan “was perhaps brighter than most, certainly less talkative, but otherwise, in terms of character, not terribly distinctive. Nor would anyone have thought she could do the thing she did.” Complete with a love interest and a journey, On Such a Full Sea simply goes to show that familiar elements can be used to make a very different kind of story. While the dystopian trend in YA heavily favours first person narrative, Lee opts for the distinctive “we” in his adult novel, telling Fan’s story in the collective voice of those she left behind in B-Mor. It takes a while for the reader to settle into this unusual voice, which sometimes uses long, lyrical sentences, and other times is broken up into a staccato of shorter, oddly punctuated fragments. Combined with slow pacing punctuated only by occasional bursts of action, On Such a Full Sea makes for a slow, ponderous read.
As Lee himself writes “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her.” Indeed, as a protagonist, Fan is frustratingly passive at times, and brutally decisive at others. Whether she acts or waits, things seem to eventually come out her way in the end, but is often difficult to give her credit for the results. Without the singular first person narrative so common to dystopian fiction, we aren’t in Fan’s head to really understand her motivations, and the “we” of B-Mor cannot really be trusted, engaged as they in are mythologizing her story, even while denying they are doing any such thing by frequently emphasizing that Fan is not a heroine, or a champion, or even a leader. Ultimately her inaccessibility is a reminder that she is not really a person so much as the legend of a person, and much of her story may be pure speculation on the part of our narrators. Perhaps more important than the tale of Fan are the interspersed chapters recounting the small but disturbing ripples of disruption of life in B-Mor caused by her departure. The novel’s quiet pacing is eerie, like a horror movie spent waiting for something to jump out of the dark, only that something never materializes. On Such a Full Sea is at once haunting and unsatisfying; I cannot claim to have enjoyed it, but it will be with me for a long time.
More Dystopian fiction:
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
Son by Lois Lowry
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