Little, Brown, £13.99. Order at the discounted price of£12.59 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

On Such A Full Sea, By Chang-Rae Lee: Book review - looking in from the peripheries of a dangerous dystopia

 

Chang-Rae Lee's fifth novel, set in a dystopian future of environmental and moral collapse, is a departure of sorts for the Korean-American author. From his debut, Native Speaker, to 2010's The Surrendered, Lee has depicted immigrants and first-generation Americans negotiating questions of assimilation.

On Such a Full Sea features elements that wouldn't be out of place in sci-fi or horror stories but it too concerns a protagonist who exists on the peripheries of a society that is demarcated by caste. Like Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Lee re-examines his longstanding interests by imagining the aftermath of our civilisation's downfall and, similar to Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, creates a world that is both dully familiar and disturbing enough to make us grateful that we live in more humane times. But, he asks, how long will that last?

In B-Mor, an enclosed settlement of labourers of Chinese descent, built on the ruins of Baltimore, 16-year-old Fan works as a "diver", farming fish which will be consumed by the elite "Charter" caste. "We labour hard for certain but the work is rote and our tomorrows are most settled," says the chorus of "B-Mors" who narrate the novel. The B-Mors imagine Fan's fortunes after she escapes to search for her boyfriend Reg and brother Liwei. They admit that their version of her experiences is "vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves." However, Lee's relaxed prose lulls the reader in to a false sense of security as he explores the nature of storytelling and, in particular, the ways that we collaborate in our own deception.

The story is slow to get going and accounts of B-Mor's decline after Fan's departure are laboured. Events accelerate when Fan enters "the counties" where America's poor live. She is run over by an outlaw doctor who treats her wounds and she recuperates at his medical commune until he sells her to a sinister Charter couple. Populated by business leaders and surgeons, the gated Charter village where Fan lives is a luxurious bubble which floats free from the rest of society. However, while minimal upward social mobility is permitted –"No leaping of worlds in this world" – even the wealthiest Charters live in fear of ruin and banishment to the counties.

Confined to a single room by her captors, Fan and seven other women counter their claustrophobia by painting a mural of scenes from their lives. "What they made was a portrait. Or a portrait of sorts," say the B-Mors. From these dizzying passages, Fan emerges as a young woman who is isolated and vulnerable because she has defied her society's expectations in the belief that her life can be exceptional. In this she resembles Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, but as this allusion is taking root, the atmosphere shifts and Fan escapes to the type of dysfunctional suburban setting that's often dissected in contemporary realist fiction.

On Such a Full Sea is a strange, skilful performance by a novelist who is brave enough to consistently subvert our expectations of narrative continuity. In Lee's future, the past is opaque and Fan never stays long anywhere, leaving places and people behind as soon as they become familiar. Yearning for both rootedness and transcendence breaks through the surface, however, when the B-Mors salute Fan's endeavour: "Isn't this what we also fear and crave simultaneously, that some internal force which defies understanding might remake us in to the people we dream we are?" By the end, we have been moved to consider what is lost when we fail to be brave.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?