She listened to his breathing, light and fine at first and then deepening to snoring, which did not bother her at all, in the way it did not bother her in the thinly partitioned row houses back in B-Mor, her uncles and aunties and cousins pitching their nightly calls in an unmelodious orchestration that heralded her blood.
But in fact we suspect she did not miss them, or us. We were still in view but as heatless as any patch of distant stars. For the enigma of her longing, it might be said, was of no-longing, not one borne of selfishness or egoism, some belief that she was scaled (and now colored) larger or brighter than the rest, but that after two and a half months away, and having trailed down those unmarked and twisted roads, and subjected to the warped designs (and hopes) of sundry citizenries, when it must have seemed each time that all was lost again, the tethers were now released, the moorings finally dismantled, and she was floated out alone. Which was strangely fine.
I’m very glad I waited to write about On Such A Full Sea because I think if I had written this post just after finishing the book I would have told you the book was just okay, but it has stayed with me in the way the most memorable stories do.
This is a story of a hero, told by the multitude she left behind, in what remains of Baltimore, now B-Mor, a labor colony that produces fish and vegetables for nearby Charters, where the privileged will do anything to stay that way. Beneath the labor colonies in society are the counties, unregulated swaths of land that are dangerous for their lack of control. The settlers from New China who live in B-Mor rarely question what happens – people disappear, fewer people are able to change their status in society – but they are fed, they have roofs over their heads, they have jobs. Until Fan, a teenage free diver whose boyfriend disappears, does the unthinkable: she leaves.
Fan’s encounters are unlikely, but she is the hero and this is her story as told by the people she left behind. The story has been stretched and transformed and who knows what actually happened to Fan. What matters is this is the story that is being told. Fan is not a hero because she is exceptional, she is a hero precisely because she isn’t. Anyone could have been Fan and Fan could have been anyone.
There’s a lot of fuss about a literary writer who is writing a genre novel. But couldn’t we call Native Speaker a spy novel, a literary political thriller? Has Chang-Rae Lee been writing genre all along? Chang-Rae Lee has been playing with these labels since the beginning.
Let’s talk about the cover. It’s perfect and minimalist and right. It’s downright iconic. Damn they better keep it for the paperback. One of my favorite things about working in publishing is the cover reveal, when the editorial and art teams present their vision for a book long after we’ve heard what it’s about. Sometimes there are differing opinions, sometimes it’s universal dislike, but when it’s universal approval? When the designers get it? I love it. There’s a collective sigh of happiness, because sometimes you just nail it. I bet that’s what happened when this cover was revealed.
I sometimes found the plural narrator tiring, but I can’t imagine this novel being told any other way. It’s one of those stories that I’m glad I made myself finish, because even if I didn’t enjoy every page, the sum of its parts was worth it.
I received a copy of On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee from publisher for review.