Beside a Burning Sea
New American Library (Penguin)
This is Shors’ second novel, his debut novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, I am told, having enjoyed great success. Unlike the exotic setting of his first novel, Shors moves to the second world war for his second outing – and most of the story is set on an island in the Pacific, whose strategic importance makes its capture of key interest to both the Americans and the Japanese.
The story starts on a hospital ship, which is mandated by International law to save wounded men, whether they be friend or foe. Four pages later, the ship has been torpedoed, betrayed by a traitor within, and nine survivors are cast up on the remote Pacific Island, where they have to play a game of Survivor, if they want to stay alive. No prizes for guessing that the traitor is one of nine castaways on the island.
The story takes place over the next eighteen days. The characters are simply and predictably paired off - Captain Joshua Collins and his wife Isabelle. Isabelle’s sister Annie, and a wounded Japanese prisoner, Akira, who helped save her. Ratu, a Fijian boy who stowed away on the ship to find his father, and Jake, the ship’s engineer who found Ratu, and quasi-adopted him. Scarlet and Nate, who seem to be there, simply because the author decided to have nine survivors – they just hand around the periphery of the novel, their characters not really developed, their presence irrelevant to the advancement of the plot. The only single presence is that of Roger, the most villainous of villains, simply because he does not have any redeeming quality.
A good book in the initial stages, I felt my interest flagging towards the middle of the book. Shors' characters are too black or too white. Predictably, the Japanese POW, Akira, haunted by memories of his fellow soldiers’ atrocities, and shamed by his failure to stop the gang rape and torture of a little Chinese girl, is a sensitive man, who loves poetry, and oh, is incidentally a teacher of English, thus removing any language barriers that may have arisen in the love story.
Equally predictably, the traitor, Roger is painted in shades of black - and there is no reason given why he should hate his country men so much, or why he should work for the Japanese, whom he hates even more. This is not a spoiler, since the reader is told who the traitor is, even before the ship sinks.
What bothered me about the books is the character development – or the lack of it. It is difficult to feel any empathy for Annie, or any interest in her interaction with Akira. Some of their conversations are so long and so boring that I found myself skipping pages when they showed up.
The captain is given to melodramatic soliloquies, and he spends a lot of his time mourning the loss of his ship and the death of its passengers and crew – which is all right in itself, but after a while, begins to grate on your nerves.
Ratu is so busy being British, and after a time, the ‘mate’ and ‘bloke’ begin to pall. There is more to British English than ‘bloody’ which is used as an adjective, noun and adverb, and maybe a few other parts of speech that I have missed.
To some extent, they are all stereotypes, the hardworking captain, his equally hardworking wife, the shy, misunderstood heroine with her fears, the honourable Japanese prisoner, and though Shors writes well, the plot falls into the same predictable situations.
The island is full of the things they need to survive, the prisoner falls in love with the nurse, (their passages are the weakest link in the story, none of the professed chemistry coming through) the captain and his wife rediscover each other, and tsunamis drop in to add to the mix.
I picked up John Shors' Beside a Burning Sea, because my son read the blurb and found it interesting. My son is fifteen, and he really liked the book. He insisted that I read it, and I did. I must admit that for a melodramatic love story, it is a fast read, though Shors tends to lose sight of his plot at times, especially when he tends to focus on Annie and Akira. This is ironic, considering they are the protagonists of the romance.
I am not too sure whether John Shors intended to write a love story set against the backdrop of war, or a story of hope and faith, betrayal and violence, or a tale of how social conventions fall away when people are taken out of their original environment.
My son has been recommending it to his friends, so probably this book will appeal more to readers in his age group. In spite of my misgivings about this book, Shors writes well enough for me to want to pick up his earlier novel, and that perhaps, is a recommendation in itself.