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Empress of Asia: A Novel by Adam Lewis…
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Empress of Asia: A Novel (2006)

by Adam Lewis Schroeder

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The Empress of Asia opens as Harry Winslow's dying wife tells him that Michel Ney, a WWII buddy, is still alive and that Harry must go to Thailand and see him. This begins Harry's quest to a remote area of Thailand to reconnect with his past ... or so he thinks.

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.

Note: Foreign terms are used throughout the book and, while the book doesn't contain a glossary, Schroeder has provided one at his website.
http://www.adamlewisschroeder.com/empressglossary.php ( )
  TerriB | Mar 13, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really enjoyed the authors style of writing and was taken in with the story in the beginning of the book. Unfortunately I couldn't get myself to continue. I'd read a few pages and completely loose interest. I gave up at page 80. Like I say, it was well written. I just didn't enjoy this type of story.
  lyndabriggs | Sep 25, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I am giving this book a middle rating for now as I have not been able to finish it. I tend to enjoy "character-driven" rather than "plot-driven" novels, and this one (at close to 100 pages) feels more like the latter. The first section was much more intriguing to me as we learn about the interior world of Harry Winslow's grief. However, once he sets off on his journey, I found myself losing interest due to lack of connection to the characters or the story. However, when things in my life calm down a bit, I may return to it as the entire premise is quite interesting to me. If I do finish it, I will update this review! ( )
  Lcwilson45 | Feb 17, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Though it starts quietly with the reflections of Harry Winslow soon after the death of his wife Lily, Empress of Asia is filled with whirlwind experiences that take him from a small town in British Columbia to the Asian Pacific during World War II.

The story is told in three parts - and all told as an internal conversation of Harry with his deceased wife. That technique works well in the first portion of the book, less well during the lengthy second portion as Harry recounts his Asian experiences, and, at times, it is annoying during the third portion, as Harry repeatedly wonders if Lily had "seen this" or "was familiar with that" during his surprising discoveries about Lily's life.

Harry's initial descriptions of the chaos in the Pacific during World War II draw one in effectively, including his explanation of how he met Lily amidst that chaos - however, this section of the book, the lengthiest one by far, lost steam for me, especially in the latter portions.

The final section of the book brings resolution to the mystery we encounter in the first few pages, providing surprise, sadness, and wonder about the challenge of moving forward while reflecting on the past. It is an ending that raises interesting questions in one's own life even if the life events and final twist are not as spectacular as those in Harry and Lily's.

The book was generally a good read. Like the music of The Tragically Hip, it is (in some ways) refreshingly Canadian - which is a very positive thing.

A bit of a minor note: the music of Fats Waller plays a role in the story, but it is a role that does not resonate with me, despite my love of music and the impact of music in my own life. In fact, Harry's "top of mind" recall of the music in times of crisis, chaos and resolution is unconvincing - the associated passion seemed an aside to the story (in my mind) rather than an integral piece of understanding Harry.

A personal note: It was wonderful to read the name of Gordon Sinclair - a great reminder of watching Front Page Challenge on CHCH television out of Hamilton, Ontario while spending summers on Long Point, Ontario as a kid. Fred Davis hosting - Gordon Sinclair as one of the panelists - often Pierre Burton, too. Great stuff.

Final note: This review is based on an Advance Uncorrected Proof provided by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press ( )
  Griff | Feb 13, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I liked the ending a lot, it did suprise me. I liked the story, it told the story of a very ordinary man. I liked how well the book described the chaos of Singpore when the Japanese captured the city. What I dided like was his dialogue, I thought it was very weak. He tried to use dialogue to move the story and I don't think it worked at all. ( )
  michaelbartley | Feb 10, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312376405, Hardcover)

A sweeping epic story of heart-wrenching love and wartime adventure, Empress of Asia introduces a stunning young talent hailed as the next great Canadian writer
 
The year is 1942, and the world is engulfed by war. Young Canadian seaman Harry Winslow has just arrived in Singapore after the bombing of his ship, the Empress of Asia. One night in the ravaged city, Harry meets and falls madly in love with a vivacious young Englishwoman named Lily. After a hasty marriage, they are separated during the confusion of an air raid. Harry begins a desperate search for Lily across the Dutch East Indies, enduring hunger, illness, and unimaginable cruelty before finally being reunited with his wife.
 
Many years later, in Canada, Harry sits at Lily's bedside. In her dying moments, Lily reveals an astonishing secret: She gives him the address of Michel Ney, a man who saved Harry's life before being killed by the Japanese during the war--or so Harry had always believed. Can Lily be in contact with a man she never met, and why does she insist on Harry's reunion with him now?
 
Fifty years later after the wartime events that changed his life forever, Harry travels to Thailand to begin the final adventure of his life--to retrace the journey of his Empress of Asia and to uncover the mystery that lies at the heart of the love of his life.
 
A powerful story peopled with unforgettable characters, Empress of Asia is a stirring chronicle of love and loss, of loyalty and betrayal, amidst the turbulence of war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:42 -0400)

In 1942, young Canadian seaman Harry Winslow has just arrived in Singapore after the bombing of his ship, the Empress of Asia. Harry meets and falls madly in love with a vivacious young Englishwoman named Lily. After a hasty marriage, they are separated during the confusion of an air raid. Harry begins a desperate search for Lily across the Dutch East Indies, enduring hunger, illness, and unimaginable cruelty before finally being reunited. Fifty years later after the wartime events that changed his life forever, Harry travels to Thailand to begin the final adventure of his life--to retrace the journey of his Empress of Asia and to uncover the mystery that lies at the heart of the love of his life.… (more)

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