John Shors’s second work of fiction, BESIDE A BURNING SEA, is a novel of World War II, specifically the Pacific Theater. And most moviegoers know what that means: John Wayne leading a doomed Marine squad on a remote tropical island. Humphrey Bogart, on the bridge of a minesweeper, rolling those two little steel balls in his hand. Glenn Ford sweating out depth charges in a submarine beneath Tokyo Bay. Tough, hard-boiled stories about a desperate struggle on the shores of the great ocean --- that’s what you expect out of World War II fiction.
BESIDE A BURNING SEA has a lot of the elements you’d expect in this particular genre: an escape from a horrifying shipwreck, a treacherous spy, a hard-bitten Navy captain full of doubt and regrets. It puts its marooned survivors on a nameless atoll, which just happens to be a pawn in the grand strategic game for control of the Pacific between the American and Japanese navies. And the novel throws challenge after challenge to its characters, from a downed Japanese pilot to a devastating typhoon.
This sounds like the sort of red-meat tale that dominated the movie houses of the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s more of a romantic backdrop than anything else. At heart, BESIDE A BURNING SEA is a love story --- a tender narrative involving an injured Japanese soldier and an idealistic American nurse that blooms out of a shared appreciation for the ancient and delicate art of the haiku.
The Japanese soldier has a wounded leg and begins the story as a prisoner of war aboard an American hospital ship. When Japanese forces --- abetted by an on-board traitor --- sink the ship, the prisoner saves the lives of two nurses. The younger nurse, Annie, is attracted by his bravery and mysterious, wounded nature –-- the result of witnessing carnage, bloodshed, rape and mayhem during the occupation of China. She nurses him back to health, as he teaches her about the finer points of sushi and poetry. During the desperate and harrowing ordeal of shipwreck, they cling to each other and the hope of survival and rescue.
BESIDE A BURNING SEA walks a difficult balance between two traditions: the wartime adventure story and the lyrical romantic relationship story. (Shors also throws in a parallel relationship between the captain of the hospital ship and his newly-pregnant wife, as well as a warm paternal tale involving an African-American ship’s engineer and a wisecracking Fijian stowaway.) It takes elements from both and at times deftly combines the relationship threads with the nautical adventure threads.
But just as lovers in love can lose focus on the world around them, Shors’s narrative occasionally loses sight of where it wants to go and what it wants to do. The castaways who aren’t directly involved in some kind of a relationship are ill-drawn, if not totally peripheral to the story. There is perhaps a little too much reliance on catchphrases, especially with the non-American characters. And the villains --- both Japanese and American --- are so broadly drawn as to be almost cartoonish; you would expect them to twirl the waxed ends of their moustaches if they had them.
BESIDE A BURNING SEA has its faults, but they are understandable; it’s almost what you’d expect, in a way, in a novel that tries to accomplish so much and manages to achieve most of it. Although Shors’s writing style verges on the florid, it is exceptionally well-matched to the intricacies of its romance, while still conveying the suspense of the shipwreck and its aftermath. BESIDE A BURNING SEA won’t please either armchair adventurers or bodice-ripping enthusiasts wholly, but it will find, and deserves, a receptive and grateful audience.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 22, 2010