Harry Winslow is a wild youth with a love for Fats Waller music and an itch to see the world. Harry joins the merchant marine and finds himself on a ship called the Empress of Asia. The Empress is sunk by the Japanese, near Singapore, and Harry is transported to the island where he wanders, unsure what to do next. During his brief time in Singapore, Harry meets and marries Lily. Married for only one night, the couple is separated and find themselves in POW camps on different islands. Neither Harry nor Lily know whether the other is alive until, years later, Harry is brought back to Singapore and placed in a POW camp just a few short miles from Lily. The POWs are liberated by Allied troops and Harry and Lily are reunited. What Harry doesn't know, is that Lily carries a painful secret during the length of their married life. It is upon her deathbed that she gives her husband the cryptic message that he must go to Thailand to see Michel.
I thought I was reading a love story when I began this book and was quite surprised to find myself reading an adventure story instead. Harry Winslow survives jailbreaks, horrendous conditions in POW camps, and dangerous sea crossings. What is missing from the majority of the book is a sense of Harry himself. Harry seems oddly removed from his horrendous circumstances and shows little ambition to try and change them. Instead, he is malleable to the whims and plans of others. Michel Ney is a loyal friend and Harry owes much of his survival to this man; yet when Harry discovers just how much Michel has done for him, he is as reflective and emotional as a doorknob. Because of this, I found it hard to connect with either Harry or his plight.
The last section of the novel brings resolution to the mystery at the beginning. Though I felt that the "payoff" at the end was too little, the author did bring some symmetry and beauty to that ending. Perhaps the point of the book is simply about the human will to survive. Schroeder provides a moving metaphor for this when, toward the end of the story, Harry comes across bowls of live snakes and turtles for sale at a Thai market:
"... the snakes just slither around in the bottom but ... the turtles are stacked one on top of the other and in the fifteen seconds that I'm watching one of them drags himself to the top and flips onto the pavement! ... Gumboot plunks him back in. ... [T]he next turtle takes his turn over the side. And if they're all going to end up in the soup anyway, why should the ones on the bottom give two shakes if the ones on top have a little more ambition? In the meantime the snakes just lay there wondering which minute is going to be their last, so which bowl would you rather have been in?"Harry realized in that instant that he had lived his life as one of the snakes. He looks forward to discussing this with Michel over beer.
Harry's challenge is to move beyond mere survival and go forward with the life he has rather than the life he imagined was his. He has lived a shuttered existence since his liberation and neither traveled great distances nor resolved his distrust of the Japanese. The beautiful ending of the Empress of Asia opens Harry to the greater world and to the love of others.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Note: Foreign terms are used throughout the book and, while the book doesn't contain a glossary, Schroeder has provided one at his website.
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