Review: The Lonely War by Alan Chin
Andrew Waters is a man caught between multiple worlds. He is a pacifist who must go to war. He is an American, but his half Chinese heritage condemns him to the role of outcast amongst the crew of the USS Pilgrim. Andrew challenges almost every standard convention, leaving himself a target for abuse and disdain. He is offered some measure of protection from Lt. Nathan Mitchell, his superior and the object of Andrew’s affection, but he struggles to find his place amongst the other men. Though his shipmates initially reject him, Andrew’s skills as a cook quickly win them over and his bravery saves many of them following the destruction of their ship. Those who survive end up as prisoners of war and here Andrew learns to live in the moment, knowing it may be all he has and even when doing so means sacrificing himself for the man he loves. As the war rages on, Andrew must find a way to save his soul, maintain his faith and to survive in spite of impossible odds.
The Lonely War is the beautifully written story of one man’s journey through hell and towards happiness. The recipient of multiple awards and now in its third edition from DSP Publications, I think it would be safe to sayThe Lonely War is something of a modern classic. Alan Chin expertly captures Andrew’s struggle to endure pain and preserve his sanity in the midst of a living nightmare. Though I hesitate to call this a romance, there is no doubt that love, in all its forms, shines through as the predominate theme. Andrew’s love for those around him, of Buddhism, and ultimately of life itself, all coalesce into an elegant story of loss, sacrifice, and acceptance. The novel moved along smoothly, never dragged, and often became so captivating that I had trouble setting it aside. The author’s voice is powerful and poetic without dominating or destroying the natural rhythm of the plot. The historical aspects are well meshed amongst the rest of the narrative and act as a natural extension of the book. But it is Andrew and a strong cadre of secondary characters that make The Lonely War a truly incredible read.
Andrew is both a complex man and a very simple one and it is this juxtaposition that makes him seem so real. Having grown up in a Buddhist boarding school, he believes strongly in pacifism and embracing the nature of the world around him. When war comes, he understands that he must join the U.S. Navy but he is determined to remain peaceful and accepts the role of cook as way to serve without violating his religious beliefs. This brings him no end of bullying and belittlement, but through it all he remains strong and true to his spiritual path. Andrew’s strength makes him remarkable. He is far from perfect and breaks the same as other men, but he possesses the ability to rebuild himself and embrace the world anew no matter the challenge. His devotion to his friends, his lovers, and his faith, and the actions that result from this devotion, give the reader insight into what it means to live and to make the most of what is offered. The Lonely War is a wonderful example of how great books and amazing characters can leave a profound lasting impression long after they are read.
Most of the characters in this novel are well drawn and given a living essence of their own, but aside from Andrew, the most important are those men who serve as his lovers. They are all, in their own way, good men, but most ultimately fail Andrew and it is hard to unravel how I felt about each of them. First there is Clifford, a stuttering, pale boy who went to school with Andrew. Their love is not sexual, but instead a deep platonic affection. When they meet during the war, Clifford has embraced his true nature and while his friend initially struggles with this, Andrew’s ultimate acceptance is a shining example of his love and intrinsic respect for all life. Lt. Nathan Mitchell quickly responds to Andrew’s brilliant mind and the two have an easy camaraderie. He understands that Andrew is a matchless individual, but his duty to the Navy and to the woman he left at home prevents him from fully embracing all he and Andrew might have together. Hikaru Tottori is the commander of the prison camp where Andrew and his fellow sailors spend two and a half years. He is the “enemy,” but through Andrew’s eyes we see he is a man trapped by honor and tradition. He is married, but his wife fully approves of his relationship with Andrew and it is painfully obvious that were it not for the war, these three might find a way to make a real life together. Lastly there is Kenji, an adjunct of Tottori’s and the man who helps Andrew following the end of the war. We don’t know much about him save that he is smitten with Andrew and devoted to his commander. Kenji is the only one who sacrifices for Andrew and offers him a life beyond that which he has known. All of these men play their parts and as readers we know they and Andrew are better for having known one another, but each experiences and shares the kind of pain that becomes transformative and life altering.
Andrew is morally and spiritually beautiful and the kind of character that comes along only rarely in books. He dwells amongst the chaos and blood of a world war, but never ceases to believe that all life is important and has purpose. The author does not give him a traditionally happy ending, but Andrew is far from ordinary and instead he is given an opportunity at real happiness, which is the most any of us, real or fictional, can hope to find. While The Lonely War is not always an easy read, it is most definitely worth your time and I highly recommend it.