Title: The Lonely War
Author: Alan Chin
Publisher: Zumaya Publications
Genre: historical M/M, World War II
Length: 328 pages (print; also ebook)
Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie
The key issue keeping the U.S. armed forces from going beyond Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to give gay servicemen equal rights is a blind fear of love relationships forming, not between enlisted soldiers but between officers and soldiers, which would undermine the chain of command. The Lonely War tackles this topic head on. It tells the story of an enlisted sailor who falls in love with his executive officer. When the crew of the USS Pilgrim become POWs in Changi, a notoriously brutal prison camp, this sailor is elevated though hardship and love to discover his inner resources and extraordinary courage, allowing him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved. Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story written about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.
War is hell. It is even more hellish if you happen to be an idealistic young man who has the terrible misfortune to spend most of World War II in brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp in southeast Asia. That’s what happened to Seaman Andrew Waters, lead character in The Lonely War by Alan Chin, and is the story that is told in its pages.
Let’s get a few points out of the way right up front. This is not a romance; it is a war story, which includes moments of love between and among men. If you are looking for “smokin’ sex,” trysts under palm trees, or a traditional and predictable HEA, this novel will probably not be your cup of tea. On the other hand, if you want a very real and poignant description of what men will do to survive in war and beyond, then this book may be for you. The story is complex, the characters, particularly Andrew, fully drawn, and the conclusion, while bittersweet, is appropriate to the story that is told.
We meet Andrew in the opening pages of the book: he is 18, of American and Chinese descent, a Buddhist, pacifist, multi-lingual, and recent US Navy enlistee. Why is he in the Navy? Good question. He should be at Harvard or Yale, safe and protected. But his father told him to join and in his words, “Asian children do as they are told,” and so off he went. I am sure that if Andrew’s father knew what was in store for his son he would never have made such a request, but such is the wisdom of hindsight.
The story takes place in three major parts: Andrew’s initial deployment on the USS Pilgrim, a naval destroyer; his internment (with his shipmates) at the Changi POW camp in Singapore; and the final aftermath after the Japanese surrender that ended the war in the Pacific.
I don’t want to give too much away because you really need to read this story and let it unfold on its own. Suffice it to say that in each section, the story is rich with details that create an atmosphere that is historic and faithfully true to its time and circumstance. It is clear that Alan Chin has done his research homework with regards to a historical story and the fine points shine on every page. Those of us who use accurate particulars as a gold standard for historical fiction will be eminently satisfied. Be warned, however: some of the details are pretty brutal. I appreciated that because this is a war story, after all, but I know many readers will use that as a red flag to stay away. Too bad if they do because they are missing a magnificent story in the process.
Speaking of stories: Chin knows how to tell one. I learned that in when I read his first novel, Island Song, which I enjoyed. He trumps that effort in spades, however, in this novel—it is complex and layered and I couldn’t put it down. The other big surprise is how much his writing has matured. Clearly, he has worked on his craft and it shows. That’s not to say the writing is perfect—Chin has a tendency for info dumps that come across as “mini-lectures” and they immediately take me out of the narrative. (If you need an example of what I am talking about, just read the blurb, above.) The other aspect of his writing that could use a bit of improvement is creating tension. At times the writing was flat and emotionless, even with beautiful (or horrific, depending on the action) evocative descriptions. I realize that in same places this might be intentional: the author was showing us, as readers, just how much Andrew was burying all that he felt. But given that the last one-quarter of the book was pitch-perfect in terms of emotional wallop, it makes me think that it wasn’t all entirely planned in the earlier sections and this is an area of his writing that could use a little tweaking. I mention both of these only because they had the unfortunate effect of taking me out of the moment of the book. Even though it only happened a handful of times, it was enough to be noticeable and thus resulted in my 4.75 star rating.
That said, I still highly recommend this book.
I sometimes wonder why I like war stories so much, since I certainly don’t like war! Maybe it is because the well-written ones do so much to point out the futility and ultimate uselessness of killing each other; that being brutal and hateful is not the way to solve problems even when we are put up against evil people. But we persist. In The Lonely War, Chin makes us ask those hard questions again, framing them against the background of very real men caught up in extraordinary and terrible circumstances. He puts World War II on a human plane, which is, for the soldiers and sailors—men like Andrew—how it was fought. As I closed the last page, my heart ached for all of them.
Disclaimer: Wave offered me a PDF for review but wasn’t sure when she’d get it; I’m impatient and bought the ebook for myself at Fictionwise.