AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The novelist Chang-rae Lee is known for his sober depictions of the world as we know it - a family, immigration, war - and that makes his newest novel, "On Such A Full Sea," something of a departure. It's set in a futuristic dystopia. The book begins in Baltimore - or what was once Baltimore. It's now known simply as B-Mor. Here's reviewer Ellah Allfrey.
ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: The nation has collapsed. Once, we had a country of federated states. Now, we have charter villages for the rich, and settlements for the not-so-rich. In between are the open counties, places of anarchy with no corporate or government protection. We don't know exactly what happened to our planet, but it's easy to imagine.
There are hints of an environment abused beyond the sustaining of human life, a capitalist system that's abandoned all sense of public responsibility. This isn't unknown territory. Readers might be reminded of Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy. But despite its familiarity, in Chang-rae Lee's hands, the genre has a lightness of touch that is original and multilayered.
Our heroine is Fan. She is an ordinary girl. She has a budding romance with the ungainly but universally well-liked Reg and lives a safe, well-ordered life. Then, Reg disappears, and every inquiry is met with official silence and obstruction. So Fan leaves the safety of B-Mor, setting out into the open counties to find him.
This is Lee's fifth book and once again, he shows that he is a writer of great imagination. The story is arranged in the collective voice of the residents of B-Mor. In their telling, Fan's adventures become the stuff of legend. There's a commune where children are traded as currency, a kindly couple who turn out to keep young women as pets, and a troop of acrobat vegetarians whose secret I won't spoil for you.
This could easily not have worked. The plotline could have seemed too tidy, the twists and turns too convenient. But the story is held together by Lee's prose, which always feels immediate and engaging. My only real difficulty was that at times, the book can feel disturbingly coy. Fan's exploits are told to us after the fact. We never find out how the narrators came to know her story. We never hear her true voice.
But there is also a satisfying appeal to a book narrated this way. Just as I began to wonder if Fan really is as heroic and wise and naive as the story makes out, the chorus asks the same question. And towards the end of the book, when there is a reunion and a betrayal, and the reader would be justified in expecting a neat conclusion, there are only more tantalizing questions.
Here, for me, is Lee's mastery. "On Such a Full Sea" is a book that involves the reader fully in the act of telling the story. This is a rare experience.
SIEGEL: The book is "On Such A Full Sea" by Chang-rae Lee. It was reviewed by critic and editor Ellah Allfrey.