Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: The Lonely War By Alan Chin

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Pubished by Zumaya Boundless
Rating 5 stars

One of my favorite authors, Alan Chin invariably manages to combine an intriguing story with the kind of lush romanticism that seizes the reader and keeps him spellbound. I found his first novel, Island Song enchanting, and with The Lonely War, he has clearly matured as a writer.

A couple of problems got in the way of my full enjoyment of this novel, however, and I might as well get them off my chest. First, the author desperately needs another pair of eyes to look out for mistakes. I don’t mean the sort of typos that have become epidemic in today’s publishing and which I have despaired of ever seeing eliminated, but lapses rather more serious. Here, as one example, is a description from page 6: “he inhaled sharply, catching a whiff of Mitchell’s scent; beneath the pleasant odor of talcum powder he discerned the aroma of sweat moistened skin.” Three pages later, on the whaleboat carrying them to their ship, Andrew notices, “the faint scent of talcum powder mixed with sweat-moistened skin.” It is not simply that this jars, though it does. It is the kind of lapse the big-time critics love to pounce upon. Kirkus once speared me for repeating a description a couple of hundred pages later. They’d be all over this.

And since I’m carping, I will add that I felt some of the scenes in the Japanese prisoner of war camp strained my credibility. I’m not saying that they might not have happened as described, I have no real knowledge of life in Japanese war camps –for all I know, the author may be describing events that in fact happened in real life—which, alas, is irrelevant. In fiction, the litmus test is not, is something real, but does the author make it seem real for the reader. The Japanese camp, Changi, was reputed to be a hell-hole, but it comes across here sounding pretty cushy compared to my brother’s experiences as a prisoner of war in a German camp. I never get that sense of horror here that my brother’s tales and those of his fellow prisoners engendered, though in all fairness, horrific is not this author’s forte.

So, I waffled a bit over rating this book, because the flaws do diminish its impact somewhat, but in the end, what is good about it is so extraordinarily good that it simply outweighed any shortcomings. The prose is masterful. The characters are well drawn and believable. The pacing is beautiful and the ending is absolutely note perfect. This author always writes something more than just a story – he touches upon the universal truths, without ever becoming preachy. There is enjoyment to be had here, but there is wisdom to be gleaned from the book as well. Only the best writers manage that without short changing one or the other.

The Lonely War is a lovely read, touching, sometimes painful, sometimes humorous, and at all times vivid. Alan Chin remains one of my favorite writers. I always look forward to his next work and he is one of those authors whose work I never hesitate to recommend to others, as I do this one.

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