Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-rae Lee

I think reading some reviews of On Such a Full Sea prior to reading the novel itself helped me appreciate the book more. Several reviews talked about the epic, myth-like quality of the story, and understanding it--and protagonist Fan's journey--through that lens avoids pesky and ultimately irrelevant objections of "that's not realistic!" For though the book is fiction, it's certainly not realistic fiction, nor even realistic dystopian fiction (though that would probably be closest to its genre). Instead, it's part futuristic dystopian and part Odyssey, with Fan's journey being best understood as a series of encounters and challenges (cannibals! Sirens!) with obstacles on her path.

And while the central narrative is Fan's (little "o") odyssey to find her boyfriend Reg after he is taken from B-Mor, the regimented colony in which Fan and others live and work to provide fish for the wealthy Charters, unlike in the Odyssey, Fan's journey is only half the story. The other half of the story is that of those left behind in B-Mor, told through an anonymous first person plural narrator. In this way On Such a Full Sea is really a combination of ancient Greek styles: half epic hero's journey and half chorus in a Greek tragedy. And though at times I felt a little frustrated to be brought back to B-Mor (where little happens) when I wanted to keep following Fan (where much was happening), I do think there's something worthwhile in exploring what happens to those left behind in an epic journey. As Fan becomes myth and legend, the residents of B-Mor use her as a catalyst to question their own lives, and what results is fully realistic: some resistance, some acceptance.

Though structurally Fan is our epic hero, she's not a traditional hero (something the choral narrator reminds us of). She's brave, determined, and good, but she's also not entirely purposeful, often reacting to what happens to her rather than initiating. And she's also less fleshed out than you might think such a character would be, her presence often more a symbol than actual person.

So the book is a little different, but I liked it thoroughly, even though it leaves a rather ambiguous ending.

*Minor quibble in a book a quite I enjoyed is that it, like so many others, uses the trope of "woman getting pregnant the first time she has sex." Though obviously such a thing is possible, I have no doubt it's also very rare, so it irks me to no end to be used constantly to artificially create drama. I'm going to start creating a list:
- On Such a Full Sea
- My Real Children
- Life After Life
- The Natural
- A Thousand Splendid Suns
- Water for Elephants
- Twilight series
- Downton Abbey (TV) -- more than once too!
- Glee (TV)
- Juno (movie)

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