“Don’t sanctuaries become prisons, and vice versa, foremost in the mind?” asks the unnamed Narrator in Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea as he tells the story of Fan and her quest for something – her own self? I think that’s one basic thematic type question in the book.
The Narrator, in the rare tradition of Julie Otsuka in The Buddha in the Attic, is probably the community as a whole and is telling Fan’s story in second person from a vantage point at some point after the events. Fan is in a not-too-distant future, identifiable anyway, while the Narrator lives a generation or two after that. And like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, we never know what happened to life as we know it, although in the case of Chang-rae’s book I suspect it’s an environmental disaster coupled with a capitalist-communist China colonizing and taking over what’s left.
The Narrator opens the story by telling us that a young man named Reg disappeared from B-Mor, the community in which he lives. Then his girlfriend, Fan, the protagonist of the story, also leaves apparently looking for Reg but that’s likely only one of several reasons. She leaves B-Mor for the dangerous and more rural Counties. Reg and Fan worked in the fish industry – the food the elite Charters loved to eat, thought was the most nutritious, most healthy. But before she left, Fan poisoned the fish. – Why? Health care seems to be of supreme importance.
In many ways the situation depicted is not too far distant from the US today (and probably many other places as well).
Fan wanders the countryside and lands in several situations in which the surface appearance is not what’s going on underneath – the first family can heal her but then she’s trapped with predators. The second situation uses her in other ways. The third situation, although for all appearances amongst the very elite, has its own secrets.
This is one of those books which is written so beautifully and that contrasts against a rather disturbing underlying idea.
I wonder if part of the message might be in the Narrator’s point of view:
We reshape the story even when we believe we are simply repeating it. Our telling becomes an irrepressible vine whose hold becomes stronger than the originating stock and sometimes even topples it, replacing it altogether.
I suppose this applies to all of our histories no matter how they are retold. But the story is also a sort of allegory describing our own times is it not? Is the Narrator telling a version of our story – is the reader part of the “we?”