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Empress of Asia
by Adam Lewis Schroeder
Raincoast Books
416 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe

Penticton author Adam Lewis Schroeder’s Empress of Asia is a strong but flawed first novel. While the author’s voice is compelling throughout, his choice to tell this sweeping World War Two epic exclusively from the tightly focused first-person perspective of its protagonist ultimately weakens the book’s climactic punch.

Schroeder introduces us to Harry Winslow in a short opening chapter set in Vancouver in 1995. Winslow is a crabby old coot in his 70s, a retired car salesman who refused to sell Hondas or Mazdas because of his experiences in a Japanese internment camp in World War Two. His cantankerousness, however, can be forgiven somewhat because his wife Lily is dying in a St. Paul’s Hospital bed.

As Harry travels from home to the hospital by cab and then sits by her beside, he refers to Lily as “you.” In other words, Schroeder writes this book as if Harry were telling the story to his wife. It’s a meaningful stylistic choice, one that pulls the reader right inside the intimate relationship this couple has shared for fifty years.

Right from the start we are brought along as guests on Harry’s personal journey—we only experience what he sees, hears or feels—and he isn’t a deep thinker, so much of what we learn about Harry has to be mined from the subtext below the surface of the narrative. That’s fine, because Schroeder does an excellent job of providing just enough detail and back story to ensure that readers can identify with Harry from early on.

Lily does not survive her hospital stay, but before she dies she tells her husband that an old friend of his from the war, Michel Ney, is still alive in Thailand. Even more shocking to Harry, who thought Michel had died in 1945, is Lily’s admission that she has seen Michel several times on trips when she told Harry she was actually visiting an old friend in Singapore. Lily’s deathbed admission sends Harry on a trip overseas for the first time since he returned to Canada following World War Two.

Schroeder then sends the story back to 1938 with Harry leaving his hometown of Vernon with his best buddy Shaw to find work on a “boat out of Vancouver, tooling all over the Pacific.” Harry is starry-eyed with visions of romantic adventures lifted from the panels of Terry and the Pirates, his favourite comic strip. But he is treated to his first hard lesson in life on his first night away from home when Shaw jumps the train with Harry’s nest egg, leaving only a record player and a collection of Fats Waller records in exchange. With no money to get home, Harry pushes on alone and eventually manages to earn his keep as a seaman, first along the BC coast, and then on bigger ships, such as the Empress of Asia, plying international waters.

This stretch of the book is engaging and entertaining. Harry’s youth and innocence comes through clearly in the way he waxes on and on about the Fats Waller records he adores, and memorizes passages about “voluptuous virgins” from a pulp South Seas adventure called Cannibal Quest.

Harry’s wide-eyed view of the world is the perfect perspective to present the chaotic series of events that follow (deep breath now): the Empress of Asia is sunk in the Singapore harbour; Harry meets Lily and marries her that very night, but they are separated the next day; Harry again finds himself on a ship that is sunk by the Japanese, but this time he is captured and placed in a POW camp where he meets Michel Ney, a resourceful and charismatic Frenchman; Harry escapes from the camp with Michel the very next day and they go into hiding with the PKI, the Indonesian Communist resistance; eventually they are recaptured by the Japanese and placed in another POW camp, where they spend the rest of the war; at the end of the war, Harry finds out Lily is in another nearby POW camp and they are reunited.

All this action may sound exciting, but this is where the flaw in the book appears. Schroeder chooses to focus inordinate attention on certain segments of Harry’s wartime experiences while skimping on others that seem just as important, if not even more so.  For instance, we learn of every detail of a long stretch Harry spends alone hiding in someone’s house where he cannot understand the language being spoken (and neither can we, unless we speak Indonesian), but later when he is back in a POW camp, Schroeder skips over long stretches of time only to refer back to pertinent events that occurred during those months. In particular, the section Harry spends in hiding with the PKI ends up being rather dull and pointless.

On his website, Schroeder says this as an attempt to avoid “the everybody-in-third-person omniscient narration of your standard epic novel.” Maybe so, but the result is an inexorable alienation of the reader from the story. In the closing section, we return to 1995 to follow Harry on his journey to Thailand in search of Michel Ney. Again, Schroeder makes a strange choice to reveal Lily’s deathbed mystery to Harry in a letter. Unfortunately, this makes the climax of the novel rather flat, which is especially disappointing given the promise of the book’s exciting first half.

In spite of this unsatisfactory ending there is certainly enough here to indicate that Adam Schroeder is a talented writer with a promising future ahead of him. 

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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