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

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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 the
multilayered 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.

"The Pagan Lord" by Bernard Cornwell

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The very prolific Bernard Cornwell continues his Saxon Chronicles series with The Pagan Lord, the seventh entry. Now, main character Uhtred of Bebbanburg, warrior chief for the Saxon cause against the Danish invasions, is showing some age. He's past 50, which for a warrior in the year 910, is pretty remarkable. In this entry he's on the outs with the church and his devout son, and he fails in his attempt to recapture the castle that is rightfully his. He spends most of the book a leader without followers, a man-at-arms without a cause.

But never fear, causes seem to find Uhtred whether he's searching for them or not. While he and his ragtag troup are laying low in coastal Frisia, a captured woman helps Uhtred understand the designs and desires of kings and warlords across the British Isles. He finally decides what he must do, and promptly leads his forces, such as they are, on a harried chase of destruction and kidnappping across the Mercian Midlands to the Welsh border. And at the end, Uhtred faces likely death at the hands of a ruthless Danish force which outnumbers him at least 20-to-1.

Mr. Cornwell delights us and enthralls us with several
features in this series. First is the perfrect verisimilitude to tenth-century Saxon England. Second, he has chosen this epoch because it is a crucial juncture in the history of the British Isles. Uhtred's fictional exploits help to steer it toward English (or at that time, Anglo-Saxon) and away from Norse. Specifically also, I have seen his battle scenes praised, and deservedly so. They are shown in all their frightful and action-packed ferocity, and are the result of scrupulous research. I anticipate the next installment impatiently, because I know it will not disappoint. They never do.

"The Year That Trembled" by Scott Lax

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In a story that captures the zeitgeist of the moment perfectly, Scott Lax portrays the rapt and terrified attention that a small group of young men paid to events at the Selective Service in Washington in 1970. The Year That Trembled follows a strict chronological line in recounting the year in question; the Beatles, drug abuse, love lives, and what to do about the Vietnam-era draft weighed heavily on these young men’s minds, and I can tell you, that part of this story is eerily accurate.

This book is essentially an idyll, with young men desperate to dodge the Sword of Damocles dangled by the Selective Service System. We follow young Casey’s point of view as he traipses through his post high-school life, working as a landscaper, listening to records, and watching his housemates get high. Casey is a sensitive sort, unsure of what he’ll do if drafted, fond of his friends, but not really engaged in his life. Casey’s love of his natural surroundings – he lives in a farmhouse with three friends, and it is surrounded on three sides by a lovely meadow – is a curative against the angst of living in America at that time.

This is a focused, personal, and minute account of one young man’s very difficult journey toward manhood. We can see Casey take the very first, tiny steps on the path he’ll follow, and can feel the devastating emotions that accompany his decisions. reads as an elegy; it covers a lost time, in a lost natural world, and a life no longer available in rural America. There is real loss, real death, in the story as well, and this novel works extremely well as an antiwar piece – it’s disheartening to recall how powerful American interests prosecuted such an apparently pointless, unwinnable war.
The Year That Trembled

The Year That Trembled enjoys a strength of storytelling based on personal, amusing, and very real observations. For me, who experienced this time first-hand, it was a trip down memory lane. For other readers, it offers a spare, economical, and very heartfelt journey.

"The Memory of Love" by Linda Olsson

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Stories about recovery from loss come in many forms and many moods. Linda Olsson has provided a classic, an exemplar of the type in The Memory of Love. The life of Marion, with its tragic circumstances and heart-rending pathos, provides an impossibly bleak background. Marion is our steam-rolled protagonist and we spend nearly the entire narrative pondering if recovery is even possible.

Linda Olsson deploys a technique of interspersing the heroine’s memories with present-day events, that closely resembles consciousness itself, and we follow Marion’s struggle in a territory devoid of self. Ms. Olsson’s skill here is simply unsurpassed. Layer onto these very effective transitions the metaphoric New Zealand landscapes, the wide variety of secondary characters – some are polar opposites in virtue – and the whole of Memory shines, it reverberates with the author’s skill and ambition.

The focus of our story, Marion, just having passed fifty year in age, has retired from a career in medicine. She has divorced and moved to a beach in New Zealand to live by herself. For various reasons she avoids certain memories – she has become good at this, out of necessity. As the book progresses, Marion lets herself embrace and examine her memories, ghastly as some of them are, because of a young boy’s new presence in her life. He and she share each other’s precarious existences – neither can really trust life, can ever believe they could enjoy it.

Young Ika (a slightly mispronounced form of Mika) comes to live with Marion, unofficially of course, since there are still family members in the picture.
Ika barely communicates; his responses are monosyllables and occasional nods. This parallels Marion’s relationship with her own memories. As Ika opens up more to life, because of Marion’s presence in it, Marion begins to embrace and come to terms with her own unbelievably dark past.

The poetry of transcendence, blind day-to-day survival, the lovely possibilities in giving of oneself – all dwell and coexist in The Memory of Love. I’m in awe of the skill and balance and eye for detail and gentle yoking of mood-changing metaphor. A number of years ago I read and deeply admired Ms. Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika. This book is even better than that grand achievement. I would urge you in the strongest possible terms to take this up if you want to experience a glowing masterpiece.