Sunday, February 1, 2009

Beside a Burning Sea


by John Shors
New American Library
424 pages
Review by Melissa

As everyone knows, war books, especially those about World War II, abound. WWII provides the curious with a veritable minefield of stories: Holocaust victims, invaders, survivors, brutality. Yet, in all the stories, it is the rare book (at least among English-speakers) that takes a look at the Pacific front, exploring the war from the perspective of the Japanese-American conflict. Perhaps that's because the conflict there doesn't seem to give rise to stories nearly as dramatic or horrific as those which emerged from the European theater. Or perhaps it's because there haven't been enough authors capable of or willing to tell the stories of the war in the Pacific.

John Shors takes on that side of the war in his recent novel, Beside a Burning Sea. It's 1942, and the crew and staff of the American hospital ship Benevolence is going about doing their duty: rescuing and saving the lives of soldiers, whether American or Japanese. Until their ship is bombed and sunk. Out of the 155 people on board, only 9 survive (one of which is a Japanese soldier), and set up camp on a nearby island. While they bide their time on the island, waiting either for Japanese ships to invade, or American ships to rescue them, relationships develop, are explored, people are lost and found and rescued (metaphorically as well as literally).

The plot itself is quite slight: people are on the island waiting to be found, and to add some semblance of conflict, there's a traitor among them. But, the book is less about the war and conflict and more more about the deeper connections one makes, whether to his or her god, things or other people. The Benevolence's captain Joshua's marriage to Isabelle, a nurse on board, has been suffering because of the weight of their duties. On the island, however, they discover not only the roots of their love, but something they can build upon. Annie, another nurse on board and Isabelle's sister, is weighed down by fear and responsibility, and she discovers her first real love with Akira, the Japanese soldier who rescued her and her sister from the sinking ship. Akira is probably the most interesting character in the novel: a teacher and poet before he was a soldier, he is dealing with the atrocities the Japanese committed in China and Korea, as well as a personal betrayal. His relationship with Annie is the most extensively explored in the novel, and there is a lot to address there; not only are they dealing with prejudices of race and wartime, but their own individual haunted pasts. I did enjoy the use of poetry -- in this instance, haiku -- to bring the two characters together. Then there's Jake, an engine man, and Ratu, a Fijian stowaway, who develop a close friendship with Jake as he longs for a father figure to replace the one that has left his life to help the Americans fight the war.

The rest of the book falls by the wayside in comparison to Annie and Akira; there's hope and strength in Joshua and Isabelle's relationship, but it's just not as compelling. And while I enjoyed Jake and Ratu's banter, and slowly developing mutual affection, I was left unmoved in the end by the crisis. As for the rest of the characters, a couple are just there, as placeholders; Shors doesn't use them much to further the plot, and so while he gives them elaborate back stories, as a reader they are immaterial. The traitor, though, is also an interesting character; Shors is willing to delve into the back story to give the readers an interesting set of motivations. And while the person is known early on to the reader, it is not to the characters, which adds some tension to the story.

That's not what drew me to the book, however. It's a beautiful love story, first and foremost, and one to be savored and enjoyed.

1 comment:

Diane said...

I have this book on my shelf. A friend sang its praises and I feel in love with the cover as well :)