On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee has been most aptly compared to the works of Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro. The post-apocalyptic fiction is grim and lyrical but I find it sticks out in a way which its peers haven’t. Lee’s novel has a thread of comfort sewn throughout it in the form of community. Death and tension are certainly present, but there are also moments of real calm: children playing soccer in the road, sticky delicious street food, and gossiping neighbours. That is what makes On Such a Full Sea so peculiar and charming. At first blush it is fiction but the more you read the more you realize B-Mor might as well be the next town over, flawed but functioning. Order within disorder and vice versa are handled beautifully as the characters in the book are strongly influenced by the collectivist culture of China. “Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive,” Lee writes.
The book follows Fan, a fish-tank diver who leaves behind the safety of her home, B-Mor (formerly Baltimore), to look for her boyfriend after he mysteriously disappears. The Big Brother-like directorate who oversee B-Mor reveals nothing to the communal society Fan leaves behind and they become fascinated with the story of the two lovers, trying to unravel the reason why anyone would leave their walled city for the violence of the surrounding open counties. B-Mor’s citizens serve as more than a narrator, becoming both the embodiment of the collective and a character as central to the plot as the protagonist herself. Chapters flip between the reticent Fan and a Third Person storyteller who speaks in the plural pronoun “we” — at times limited, and at others seemingly omnipotent. The alternation brings you closer to the world of B-Mor and while also pushing you out, generating the tenuous security all citizens face in Lee’s troubled world and a firm reminder of the power of the collective to both bring comfort as well as isolation.
Like with any post-apocalyptic novel featuring a major female character, I was worried from the moment Fan was introduced. There is a tendency for female characters to read as flat and stunted in books where there is major world building (McCarthy and Ishiguro included) as if all the imagination was used up on the male characters and a fictional setting, which are indeed amazing, but make the 2D female characters more obvious. I grew to like Fan though, she is complex and withdrawn from readers due to the heavily Third Person narration yet it fits in the cultural context. Some pivotal moments feel cheapened by the limited perspective, a seemingly easy way out of dealing with Fan’s emotions and thoughts by simply saying it can only be known by her. Yet this also casts the focus again on the relationship between members of a collective. At times so close and at others realizing that the closeness is assumed and that individuals are not as familiar as they appear. It makes for a fascinating study of humanity, as many post-apocalypses are, but with an attention to group sociology which many North American novels miss or only construe in the dangerously negative or heroicly positive. On Such a Full Sea is a real story of people, not overtaken by drama, and as beautifully understated as its protagonist.