Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea poses a unique set of challenges: the lead character embodies a spark of hope in the middle of a post-nuclear apocalypse, but the author gives us only the very vaguest idea of her outcome. And throughout this magisterial and beautiful novel, we must adjust to our own place in it, as in very few other books. Full Sea haunts just as it instructs; makes us dwell on love and family just as it cautions us about approaching terrors.
In a postwar future where contaminated ground and water and air teem with carcinogens, and nearly everyone is saddled with the “C-curse,” a slight young girl (16, but passing for 12) leaves the relative safety of a coastal stronghold and goes on a quest. She seeks her 19 year-old charismatic sweetheart who was taken from her, presumably by the authorities (an amorphous body called “the directorate”). We never learn the reason for this detention, although he may have been made into a lab specimen, because he’s purportedly tumor-free.
And throughout, the author employs a unique narrating tone. It’s as though a whole town has agreed to relate its story, and herein submits the definitive version of its vitally important, identity-defining tale. And the story it tells! The town, a village, really, is fully aware of this girl and her beau, and rises up in its subdued way, to commemorate and defend the couple, and finally starts to examine itself, and the citizens suddenly comprehend a completely different universe of possibilities for themselves. Simply because a quiet girl ventures out into a lethal world, looking for answers, looking for love.
Mr. Lee shows us what a post-nuclear war future would look and feel like, and we are unavoidably reminded of our stratified Western world of today. And what of our careful, unassuming, driven young heroine? What lessons can she tell us? That’s themultilayered beauty: the author presents this fresh paragon of hope, who always behaves graciously no matter the circumstances, an apparently immature and unremarkable girl who could in fact carry the future of the race with her as she travels.
I don’t usually enjoy stories set in future dystopias. But Mr. Lee’s fable turns a mirror to our own time so effectively, and with such gracious language and consideration for the reader, that On Such a Full Sea perches perfectly on a high branch, giving us a vessel and an example for our hope, its cautionary message delivered obliquely, but unmistakably. Chang-Rae Lee has come out with a masterpiece.