Book review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

This novelist, who has favored history and conflict in titles such as The Surrendered, concocts a convincing future with lessons for today.

By Chang-rae Lee. Riverhead, $28.

Citizens of B-Mor, hear the legend of one of your own children, Fan! Her bravery leads her beyond the limits of her community of New China descendants, away from her job tending fish to feed the nearby, wealthy charter cities of the Association, in search of her lost love, Reg. She journeys into the anarchic surrounding lands, and survives harsh encounters with struggling, self-serving collectives, with only a great faith to guide her. And she might discover that her mission involves more than just herself and the baby growing inside her.

Swamped as literature is in endlessly gloomy conceptions of a hopeless future, it’s heartening to encounter what might be called a graceful dystopic vision in On Such a Full Sea. Chang-rae Lee’s story is both an adventure tale and a fable, presented by an adoring populace mulling over its fate. But more importantly, its underlying ideas about commonality, consumption and the potential impact of the individual speak directly to our culture’s disconnected and narcissistic present. Lee’s universe is not an easy one, or altogether kind, but his supple gentility speaks with more force than any sawed-off shotgun flecked with zombie brains.