BOOK REVIEW

Chang-rae Lee's latest novel doesn't disappoint


Published: Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 10:16 a.m.

Inside the confines of B-Mor, a strictly regimented labor colony populated by the descendants of immigrant workers from Asia, the story of 16-year-old Fan carries the weight of legend. As recounted by the people of B-Mor, Fan's journey outside the walls of her community, an adventure rife with peril and opportunity, travails and triumphs, has the feel of a myth told and retold over generations.

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"On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-rae Lee; Riverhead Books; 368 pages; $27.95

Like myth, it has been embellished and molded over time, carved to fit the changing tides of society and the rising and waning hopes of the teller. It is, by turns, a source of hope and a cautionary tale for those who dare to want more than society allows.

Fan's quest also serves as the vehicle for Chang-rae Lee's latest exploration of identity and personhood, of assimilation and cultural shifts, of love, loneliness and betrayal. Unlike Lee's previous novels, which mined real events and personal experiences to burrow into those themes, his latest, "On Such a Full Sea," is set in a dystopian future about 150 years from now.

It is a future made up of a highly stratified society broken into a lower class consigned to scrapping for survival in the wild and lawless "open counties" and a middle class that lives and works in labor facilities such as B-Mor (once known as Baltimore), where the inhabitants' existence is centered around the task of growing fish and vegetables consumed by a hedonistic and uncaring upper class residing in the affluent "Charter villages."

In Lee's imagined world, the classes are separated by wide gulfs of education and opportunity and life is stalked by the specter of C-illness, a disease that strikes most of the population, and the struggle for health care. It also is a place remade by immigrants, the former population of China, who were imported en masse to work in blighted industrial cities like B-Mor and D-Troy (Detroit) after their country was made unlivable by pollution and smog. It is an alarming yet familiar vision, close enough to our present society to stir discomfort.

Before Fan slips out of B-Mor, she utters a phrase that is dissected and deconstructed by those left behind: "Where you are." Was it a riddle? A clue to her destination? A philosophical treatise? Perhaps it is a message from Lee to his readers. Like all good dystopian literature, perhaps Fan's story is more about where we are — a society of growing income inequality, climate change, culture clashes and health care gaps — and where we might be going.

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