The Lonely War

chin lonely waveTitle: 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 BLURB

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.

THE REVIEW

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.

19 comments

  • Leslie,
    If you want to read a good romance/WW2 story set in Singapore/Malaya then you should try Tanamera by Noel Barber. (m/f) It is written so well even my mum said it could be a true story 🙂
    It is my all time favourite book and I have yet to find anything to take it off the number 1 spot :). I think I relate to it so well because I grew up in a life that ws very similar. (spoilt expatriate brat LOL)

    Alan,
    I should be thanking you 🙂

    tish

    Reply
  • Leslie
    Well I didn’t take your advice (not to read this) and I’m glad 🙂
    This book has made it to number 3 on my all time best m/m list. It was well written and so engrossing I forgot that I was sitting bundled up on the sofa with cold icy winter rain falling, but I was back in Singapore listening to my nanny tell me of the time the Japanese came to her island.
    Andrews (this is his story) cadence throughout this whole experience set a tone and pace that never faltered. Even though the subject matter in some instances was beyond imaginable, Andrew kept the soul of himself in perfect balance. He was well written and so were the supporting characters, so much so I wanted to know what happens to them all 🙂
    Mr Chin did a bang up job of taking a horrible heartbreaking time and weaving a believeable love story into it. For me the love story isn’t about the men but about life. And you know I love, heartbreaking love stories about life 🙂

    Thanks for the recommend

    tish

    Reply
    • Tish, this is a wonderful comment. Thank you so much for coming back and letting me know what you thought of the book. Alan will be thrilled, too, I am sure — I’ll email him to make sure he sees this.

      I was musing somewhere else, wondering why I like war stories since they are often are so filled with heartbreak and violence. Maybe it is because when they are done well, the story that results is usually superb with none of the contrived angst that sometimes afflicts other stories.

      L

      Reply
    • Tish,
      I wanted to thank you for your wonderful comments about my novel, The Lonely War. I’m sorry for the loss of your family members at Changi but I am thrilled that you enjoyed my work, especially considering your family history. You’ve made my day. Thanks again,
      alan chin

      Reply
  • Tish, given your history, you may want to pass on this book. The Changi POW camp part is probably about 50% of the book and Alan doesn’t sugarcoat it at all.

    The ebook was nicely formatted and looked good on my Kindle, although I am thinking about buying the paper book, too, just to have in my archives. (I have to laugh — the whole point of the Kindle was to cut down on paper books, but I am discovering so many great new authors, I keep buying duplicate copies of the books I read!)

    L

    Reply
  • This book sounds like it should be read as a paperback not an ebook. I hve a terrible time with books about Changi.
    A, I was born in Singapore, my father was Royal Navy and mum is of Indian decent from Malaya (KL)
    B, My mum lived through WW2 with the Japanese invasion of Malaya and still speaks of that time with great clarity. Both her father and grandfather were tortured (several times) by the Japanese at Changi for helping the British and Australian soldiers. My great grand father was tortured to death. My grandfather watched his father die yet he never held a grudge. Believing in forgivness instead.

    My father was at Korea with the Royal Navy… he was 15 yr old when he was sent.

    tish

    Reply
  • Oh, dear, now I have a dilemma. My rule is, I only review one book by any given author – a matter of time, and to be honest, I get so many requests I can’t possibly get to them all. But, I love Alan’s writing, and this sounds so exceptional. I may just have to bend my rule.

    Damn Miss Rose (for those of you who love Mrs. Parker)

    Victor

    Reply
    • It is exceptional, Victor, and well worth reading. I’ve been immersed in WWII reading and writing over the past few months, but more focused on D-Day and the war in Europe. It was interesting to head on over to the the Pacific and spend some time with the US Navy.

      This book made me miss my father (he was in the Navy) and if he was still with us, I might have given him a copy to read. He wasn’t much for gay themes and love stories, but I think the way this is written, it would have pulled him in too, the old curmudgeon 🙂

      L

      Reply
      • Leslie,

        Wish your father could have read it. Would loved to have gotten his impressions. I’m also hoping that my mother will read it, as Captain Ben Bitton is her father, and Lt. Bernard Hurlburt, the marine leader, is my father. She didn’t read Island Song so I’m not holding out much hope. My father was actually in the Korean conflict rather than WWII, but I slipped him into this story anyway.

        Reply
        • That’s interesting about your dad and grandfather, Alan. My father was also in Korea. He was a Naval gunfire officer and was attached to the Marines, a fact that he was very proud of! He enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and trained for a year here in the US, but never saw combat action in WWII. He always told me that if we hadn’t bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he would have been part of the invasion of Japan. I know he would have been interested in your book.

          L

          Reply
  • Leslie
    I think that I will definitely read this book because I like Alan’s writing and it seems from the review that you’re enthralled with the story. I know that war is brutal and I’ll take that under advisement and skip over the horrible diseases.

    Reply
    • Yes, that’s they way to do it, Wave. 🙂 And the whole first part, on the ship, there is nary a disease in sight. Things don’t get grim (disease-wise, that is) until they are at the POW camp, which makes sense.

      L

      Reply
  • I think one of the reasons the war stories can be compelling, besides showing the futility of war, is that they show the human kind not only at its worst but also at its best – through courage, friendships, sacrifice. This one seems to be one of those stories. It sounds really promising. But, I have to ask. I know you said it wasn’t the classical romance but war story and I don’t want any spoilers. But, will I want to slit my wrists at the end? These days I’m really not in the mood to feel depressed once I finish the book.

    Reply
    • No, you won’t want to slit your wrists. The ending is perfect, actually. I said bittersweet in my review — bittersweet because it was very realistic and true to life, but happy in its own way. This is definitely a book that is worth reading. It made it onto my top ten list for the year (in the number 10 spot) which I didn’t expect when I started reading it.

      L

      Reply

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