Review: The Lonely War by Alan Chin

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.

A collaborative review by Leslie H. Nicoll and Natasha Villion

Let’s start the year with a five star review, shall we? If you are hankering for a well written, historically accurate World War II story that will tug at your heartstrings, The Lonely War by Alan Chin should go straight to the top of your TBR pile.

I read and reviewed this book for jessewave’s site a few weeks ago and promised Erastes I would revise my review for Speak Its Name. Reviews here at the site were put on hold due to the Advent Calendar festivities and that turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events. One of the regular commenters at Wave’s site, “Tish” (Natasha), got in touch with me about The Lonely War. She had recently read and enjoyed another book of military stories, Hidden Conflict (which was reviewed here just a few days ago) and was interested in The Lonely War. But, she also had a personal history with Changi prison and wondered how explicit The Lonely War was. “Chin doesn’t pull any punches,” I said. “He’s pretty clear about what went on in the notorious POW camp.” Even though she had a few trepidations, Tish decided to read The Lonely War—and was glad she did. “This is definitely one of my top reads for the year,” she wrote me. “Maybe even forever—it’s that good.”

I asked Tish if she would write a review for Speak Its Name because I thought her personal experience with the prison (through her family) was an interesting context for reading the book. At first she demurred but then, with some urging from her husband, decided to accept my invitation. The following is her review.

~~~

This story both terrified and enthralled me. Maybe I should explain a little bit about who I am. I was born in Singapore to a Malay/Indian mother and a white Royal Navy father in the 1960s. So WW2 was still quite fresh in people’s minds. Singapore had expelled the communists and had moved away from British rule. It was a glorious upbringing but the underlying sadness of those that lived through WW2 was ever present.

Changi had become a full prison but the beaches around it were a popular swimming place for locals and us temporary locals. There were still small Malay villages with houses sitting on stilts with their palm frond roofs. The old men sat in the shade and watched the mad Europeans dash around the beach playing cricket and other English staple sports.

I was raised by a Malay woman who was both our amah (maid) and nanny.  She told my sister and me stories of the Japanese invasion of her island and how her father had helped smuggle British and Australian soldiers out of the prison and into Malaysia.

My mother told me stories of her father and grandfather and the torture they suffered at Changi prison during the war. They were accused of aiding and spying for the British, which they most proudly did. My great grandfather died during one of these torture sessions watched by his son, my grandfather.

I have yet to come across any Asian who is bitter about the war. Maybe they know more about forgiveness than I do.

This story, The Lonely War by Alan Chin, is about Andrew Waters, an Asian American seaman with the US Navy.  The book is written in three distinct parts. The first is set aboard the US Navy ship, The Pilgrim; the second, at Changi prison; and the third, in Japan, after the war has ended.

Raised in Thailand and forced to leave when it is invaded, Andrew tries to make a life for himself as a Buddhist and pacifist in the US Navy.  It was his American father’s wish that Andrew join the Navy and Andrew, being a good Asian son, complies. He is very well educated but not of officer rank. He struggles to maintain a polite distance from all the other men on the ship except one.

The first part of the story, while aboard the USS Pilgrim, has Andrew battling wits with an officer, who is both enthralled and confused by him. This part of the book sets the tone and pace of a love story that lasts a lifetime. It also shows what life was like for non-whites during WW2 and the way they were treated and what was expected of them. It is a good depiction of life aboard a ship of war. Part One ends when the ship is attacked and the men are taken prisoner by the enemy.

Part Two is set during the prisoners’ internment at Changi prison, run by the Japanese. For me, this section of the book was terrifying, as I knew from family accounts how ruthless the Japanese were. Even telling such a horrific tale, the writing was very tastefully done. Some of what is described is completely believable, such as the making protein from insects to trade among prisoners. In this part of the story, Andrew shines, although you might not realize it at first. His love for his officer makes him do something that changed him forever. I liked the way this part of the book unfolded and Andrew’s dilemma was handled. It wasn’t gratuitous or unbelievable. He kept the soul of himself intact and that alone made this section more believable for this reader.

Part Three is Andrew’s journey after the war; it is about promises kept and finding your humanity. His soul is shattered and bleeding. Andrew’s journey in body and spirit is harrowing. His loss and failings are heartbreaking and the writing is so true to his experience that it hurts to read. This kind, gentle, man has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to and it leaves such a bitter taste in your heart you don’t know if you can recover or if he can.

This part sold the story for me. It was so well written that you feel every blade in Andrew’s soul.

I know this story sounds more about war then love, but is it? The author Alan Chin, has written a very good story about WW2 from an Asian American perspective. It is a story of a life-altering experience during internment at one of the most barbaric prisons in Asia and redemption after the war. I found it a truthful telling of one man’s life and a faithful account of the war in Asia. I also found a love story that will stay with me long after the last page has been read. I fell in love with all these brave men and I wish them well wherever they might land.

~~~

At my jessewave review, I gave The Lonely War 4.75 stars because I had a few minor quibbles with some of the writing. While I still stand by what I said, I find I can honestly give the book 5 stars here at Speak Its Name. I was influenced by Tish’s strong reaction to the book and she told me in no uncertain terms it was a 5 star read for her. Also, the historical accuracy was outstanding and that, here at SiN, is the gold standard by which I judge a book and in that respect, it definitely earned its stars.

To conclude, let me repeat my closing paragraph from my earlier review:

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.

I would suggest that a fitting resolution for 2010 is to put this book on your “must read” list—sooner, rather than later. It’s that good and Tish and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Amazon USA Amazon UK Fictionwise link (ebook)

4 Responses

  1. Wonderful! This one has been on my tbb list since it came out, though Christmas expenses meant I haven’t managed to get it yet. I think I’ll make it my first buy of the new year :)

  2. If you want to buy the ebook, Alex, there is a big sale going on right now at Fictionwise: 60% off!

    L

  3. Leslie and Natasha, your review brought tears to my eyes. I am truly grateful that the story and characters touched something with in each of you.

    Writing historically accurate fiction is not for the faint of heart, and a great deal of work and research went into this novel. I’m thrilled that all that effort is paying off, that is, that savvy readers are not disappointed.

    Thank you both for such a glowing review of my work.
    alan chin

  4. This has been on my TBB list — now it’s moved up to #1 after my Xmas expenses are paid off!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,983 other followers

%d bloggers like this: