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The Lonely War Paperback – November 12, 2009
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As an enlisted crewman, Andrew finds himself in a quandary when he meets and falls in love with his commanding officer, Lieutenant Nathan Mitchell. The young seaman is commissioned by Mitchell to become the ship's chief cook, and he astounds the men aboard with his amazing culinary talents.
The relationship of the ill-matched couple is strengthened when they discover they share an intellectual connection, but it is not until Andrew risks his own life in order to save that of his commander that it becomes apparent the depth of Andrew's love.
Ultimately all of the story's primary characters are captured and imprisoned in a POW camp called Changi. It is here that Andrew again makes the ultimate sacrifice for the man that he loves, and in the process he develops feelings for another of his commanders. This time it is Commandant Totturi, the Japanese officer who oversees Changi.
The Lonely War is in many ways a reviewer's dream-come-true. It is an extraordinarily well-written and meticulously edited piece of literature. The writing is so strong, in fact, that consuming this vocabulary is comparable to indulging in a delicious dessert. It is certainly to be savored, and due to this factor alone, it is a read which I strongly recommend.
In the author's blurb, he promotes his book as being a statement about the military's Don't Ask-Don't Tell policy, but in my opinion such a summary would seem to trivialize the impact of this gripping story. Yes, it is the story of love within a military setting, but I do not necessarily view this love as being limited to the homosexual relationships which are exposed therein. It is also about the love shared by the entire group of crewmates and prisoners who are so masterfully fleshed out in the book. It is about loyalty, forgiveness, and the potential that human beings possess to become more than the labels we place upon them.
Particularly impressive is the manner in which each of the main characters arc during the story. Initially Andrew is surrounded and oppressed by the bigotry of his crewmates who see him not as a fellow seaman, but instead merely as Asian. When they begin to figure out that he is homosexual, this bigotry intensifies. The manner in which Andrew wins each of them over and demonstrates the purity of his heart is emotionally gripping, to say the least, Each of the central and secondary characters is significantly impacted by the selfless acts of kindness that Andrew continues to demonstrate.
It is also noteworthy that although Andrew is presented in this positive yet sympathetic light throughout the story, he is not portrayed as being flawless. He often struggles with what he perceives to be failures of his own character, and he eventually even battles a powerful yet understandable addiction which nearly destroys him.
At the risk of including a spoiler, I must say that I was pleased with the not-quite-perfect ending of the story. It was not exactly what I would call a "happily-ever-after", but it was satisfying and thought-provoking.
The beginning chapters of the story were laced with very lofty vocabulary, including several adjectives for which I actually had to pull out a dictionary in order to decipher their meaning. This continued until about page seventy of the book. It was amazing to me as I read it, because it almost seemed as if at this point something broke loose from the author and the real writing began. Only during these initial pages did it feel to me that the story sort of slogged along, but after this point it became a page-turner which I could not consume fast enough.
I would encourage readers to endure the beginning of the book, even if you are a bit overwhelmed initially, because it is an incredible story. Other than the slow start, my only real criticism was that I was so overcome with emotion during the last few chapters that I could barely see to read through my tears. I highly recommend this read, and I urge you to buy the book.
I will not spend time describing the setting, the story, rewriting a blurb, all of this can be found on the publisher website or in other reviews, I want to explain why this novel was so involving for me that more than one time I needed to stop and re-reading sentences, since my mind was wondering on its own direction, letting painful memories take over the story. What you are reading is not a review, unless you don't want to consider the factor that only a powerful novel is able to do that, to suck you into the story so much that you loose yourself into it.
More than one reader told me this novel has a bittersweet ending, but sincerely I don't agree with them, this novel has probably the only possible happy ending considering it's set in the mid-late '40 and with one main character, Andrew, that is an Asia-American man. Asia-American man and gay in the US at the end of the '40 - beginning of the '50? I don't want to give too much of a spoiler so please stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled, but
how much realistic it would have been if Andrew had returned home after the war to live happily ever after with another man? It would not be possible, and Andrew undoubtedly would have been unhappy, maybe not immediately, but surely in time, and probably not only unhappy, but also alone. The ending Alan Chin decided to give to the story is the only one possible, and with this perspective, for me it's also a good one, in my mind I can imagine Andrew being, maybe not fully happy, but at least in peace.
The only concern I have is exactly on the last sentence of the postscript "he (Mitchell) realized that instant had never occurred" and even before, in the last paragraph of the last chapter:
"Okay. I'll stay with you until spring."
He (Andrew) felt a spark of intensity flare up within his being, and he desperately wanted the winter to stretch on forever.
I actually re-read three time both last chapter and the postscript, trying to understand what actually the ending was, and in the end, I think the author wanted to give us 2 options: if the reader has a more romantic core, he/she will read this ending as an happily one for Andrew, he fought his "mal de vivre" and he found a reason to continue in the people around him who loved him; if the reader has a more realistic core, he/she will read this ending with a more bitter taste. But since I'm a romantic at heart, I don't want to think to the possible meaning of the postscript, I want to focus on that "spark of intensity" that flares up within Andrew's being, giving him a reason to fight against everything happened to him, and maybe even against his own heart.
When I was young I loved so much the war novels, because it was an history I can reconnect to, my grandfather used to talk about the war, my same parents were children when the II WW was still on, and a lingering memoir of those events still was in the air. I stopped to love them since it was not often I found an HEA, most of the time, one of the character was left behind, mourning the loss of his/her beloved one. With this perspective, I'm happy to have read The Lonely War, it's an heartbreaking novel, but I'm not sure I will be able to read it again (as I'm not sure I will be able to see again The Pianist or The Schindler List or Empire of the Sun): they are all artworks (and yes, art is a necessary definition) calling to much to my heart, and I need to protect it. For this reason I want to think to Andrew and that spring that will never come, letting the winter last forever.
And now out of the review, so please don't consider it as a parameter to decide if you want to read or not this novel, this is my personal experience, but I will explain why I need to protect my heart from this novel and from that last sentence: my father was a man of summer, he enjoyed the sea, the nature, the possibility to living outdoor; he was raised in the city, during war time, and his only escape from a life of poverty and work (he started to work at 9 years old) was to go fishing near the sea, on the delta of a big river. He could do that only in spring and summer, and sometime he stretched it until autumn, but winter was out of question, it was too cold. It was not the fishing itself that pulled to my father, but the possibility to escape a reality that was too much hurting for him. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was given 3, maximum 4 months of life: it was the December of 1990; my father fought the cancer with all his strength, he wanted to live for me, my brother and my mother, and he wanted to live since he was only 51 years old and he had a life in front of him. On November 1993, almost 3 years after the diagnosis, the pain was indescribable, and my father still refused to take the morphine since he didn't want to loose the connection with his life, with us and the rest of the world. But the winter came and he was forced to come back home, far from the river and inside an house in the city. One of the last things he said to my mother was, looking outside to our yard garden that was starting to blossom with the new year flowers, "if I manage to be alive coming next spring, I will manage to live another year." My father died on March 18, 1994. I want to think that for Andrew things went differently, that the spark was strong enough to let him live through the another and another and another winter.