Author's note
Early in 2008 I received an actual, tactile letter from Chris Wilkinson of West Vancouver, BC, regarding Empress of Asia.
    "I can't think of a better recommendation than that of two people I admire greatly. First, I read passages of your book to my 100-year old father (British Merchant Marine, Far East 1919 to 1943; Captain, Canadian Merchant Marine after the war was over.) His comment: 'the bloke was definitely there and knows his stuff.'
    "Second read was with a Dutch friend, now 70. He, his mom and older brother were interned at Changi for nearly the whole war. It brought back incredible memories and stories, which were quite helpful to him. He thought you were there too, until I told him how old you were!"
    I'd like to present Mr. Wilkinson's heartfelt thoughts as the first official review in this section, with many thanks to his friends and relations.

Publishers Weekly (USA),
October 29, 2007
    British Columbian Schroeder takes the reader on an epic journey from contemporary back to WWII Singapore in his debut novel. After Harry Winslow’s dying wife reveals that Michel Ney, a war buddy who Harry thought was dead, is in fact alive, Harry begins a quest that will take him to remote Thailand. Spliced in with the contemporary plot is Harry’s wild past: as a young marine in Singapore, Harry meets Lily, marries and loses her in a 24-hour period during the Japanese invasion. Harry is captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp, where he meets resourceful Frenchman Michel. The two are split up, and Harry later hears that Michel died while trying to escape from another camp. Harry and Lily reunite after the Japanese surrender (she’d been held in a women’s camp), though Harry doesn’t know about the painful secret Lily now bears. Chunks are told in an annoying second person, and the lengthy descriptions of flora and fauna suggests an author too eager to show his research, but the narrator’s wry sense of humor and a plot loaded with jailbreaks, desperate sea crossings and daring rescues do much to mitigate. Schroeder’s first effort is a well-wrought tribute to lives torn apart by war.

Canadian Literature,
Summer 2007
    Many Canadian writers exhibit a near obsession with our country's historical past. Indeed, almost every Canadian novel that can be classified as "historical" looks back on and reconsiders a violent or in some way reprehensible segment of Canadian history. Two recent Canadian novels that broaden this focus to take a Canadian perspective on international affairs are Adam Lewis Schroeder's Empress of Asia, which aims its lens at Canadian experience in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War, and Jim Bartley's Drina Bridge, which examines a Canadian connection to the more recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia and their roots in the Second World War. Both books are challenging and disturbing, not only because they evoke shameful periods in international war history (some troublingly recent), but also because their narrators are men whose flaws include the kind of self-centred blindness recognizable, in greatly magnified form, in those who commit wartime atrocities.
    Schroeder's Empress of Asia is narrated by Harry Winslow, an insular, racist, and often not very likeable seventy-something Vancouver car salesman. Harry's world is shaken when his beloved wife, Lily, dies of pneumonia. Lily's dying request-that Harry visit Michel Ney, an old acquaintance from their years in concentration camps in Indonesia and Singapore-sends him on a journey of discovery that forces him to reconsider his and Lily's past, and eventually his own self-deluding blindness. As first-person narrator, Harry addresses his story to a beloved "you"-Lily-through three very distinct sections. In the brief opening section, set in 1995, Harry talks to Lily about his response to her death. In the much longer second section, he remembers his experiences as a merchant seaman during the Second World War, his meeting with Lily in Singapore, and his years in prisoner-of-war camps. Finally, in the short final section, Harry as narrator returns to 1995 and to his fulfillment of his wife's request that he travel to Thailand, a trip that results in the revelation of a transformational secret from her past.
    Schroeder's book poses questions about the potential ambiguity of personal moral standards and the nature of prejudice. While Harry's narrative outlines the concrete reasons for his bigotry against people of Japanese origin, it also reveals this prejudice to be a tragic flaw preventing him from seeing kindness and concern in people such as the nurse, Yuriko, who takes care of his wife during her final hours. Harry is a frustrating main character because of his narrow-mindedness and passivity. He falls into work as a sailor and then as a merchant seaman during the war (on the boat for which Schroeder's novel is named); he runs into Lily (his other Empress of Asia) in Singapore and haphazardly takes her up on her surprising suggestion that they immediately marry; he passively acquiesces to Michel's schemes during their time in and out of concentration camps. Harry is repeatedly paired with friends who both help and hinder him, and who, at least from Harry's perspective, are even more morally questionable than he is. The first is his youthful friend in Canada, Eric Shaw, who gets him his first job as a sailor and who incites a lifelong love for Fats Waller, but who also steals all his money. The most significant is the Frenchman Michel Ney, a black-marketeer he meets in a prisoner-of-war camp on the Indonesian island Celebes (now Sulawesi). Like Michel's namesake, the French hero of the Napoleonic wars who switched sides but who fought and died bravely, Harry's friend exhibits a moral ambiguity that allows Harry, in the years after their incarceration, to deprecate their friendship. Michel's dealings with the Japanese guards indeed border on collaboration. But as readers eventually learn, Michel's care for Harry and for Lily has kept both of them alive, and in the process has enabled them to hide fundamentally life-changing experiences of war from one another.

Canadian Literature (cont.)
Their tragedy is that while Lily has kept a secret for fifty years to protect Harry, his response when the secret is at last revaled indicates that, while his narrow life would have been much more complex and harrowing had he not been so sheltered, it would at the same time have been richer and more rewarding.
    Schroeder's novel provokes a reconsideration of official and personal history through the metaphor of blindness. The beriberi that Harry suffers as a result of malnutrition in the prisoner of war camp blurs his eyesight, but also gives him an excuse not to recognize significant characteristics of others and of himself. Harry averts his gaze in particular from his own ethically questionable acts. For example, while he has been told that if he escapes from the Celebes concentration camp, six other men in the camp will be killed, he allows himself to forget this detail. Michel, on the other hand, has clearly weighed this sobering fact and has considered the heavy responsibility escape might entail. With the belated help of his dead wife, Harry acknowledges that he must recognize his own moral failings before he can experience his life as a whole, encompassing both good and evil.
    [Drina Bridge is here discussed in some detail.]
    …as in Schroeder's book, the literal and figurative blindness of the characters provides for an insightful if ultimately inconclusive consideration of wartime events and their reverberations fifty years into the future. The imperfect narrators in these two books suggest that lack of vision enforces not just repeated rewritings of historical narratives, but also the unwelcome repetition of human histories of bigotry and violence.

--Wendy Roy

The Edmonton Journal, January 14, 2007:
    Empress of Asia is the story of Harry Winslow and Lily Brown, their love, marriage, hardships and adventures in Singapore and Changai prisoner-of-war camp under Japanese occupation, and a mystery that brings some sense to their suffering only after Lily's death.
    It is also the story of their mutual friend Michel Ney, who claims descent from the famous Napoleonic Marshal Ney. Michel is a complex and colourful character in the mould of Harry Lime, who works both sides of the moral line in the interests of survival. A vibrant cast of characters swirls around these three, as the narrative carries them through disaster after disaster in wartime Asia.
    Harry grew up in Vernon, B.C., as did Adam Schroeder, the author. After some hard knocks and kicking around during the Depression, Harry ends up in the merchant marine, and the tale begins to roll.
    In true picaresque style, one damn thing after another sweeps our guileless western Canadian protagonist along. Not overly eager to enter the war, Harry nevertheless finds himself aboard the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Asia as it approaches Singapore in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the Empress is sunk by the Japanese, just off Singapore, Harry finds himself adrift among the thousands of refugees swarming through the streets of that besieged city. There he meets Lily and her mother, waiting vainly for Lily's father to return to the famous Raffles Hotel. After a brief romance, the worldly-wise Lily and ingenuous Harry are married, and then almost immediately are separated as they become prisoners in the infamous Changai camp, also depicted graphically by James Clavell in his first novel, King Rat.
    At the beginning, Harry is an almost Candide-like innocent, always looking for good signs among the virtually endless bad luck he suffers. Fortified with a portable record player and several Fats Waller records, inherited from a friend who earlier had abandoned him in a lurch, he is bounced from place to place. Luckily for Harry, and the reader, he is bounced into very interesting places. As the Empress is sinking, Harry reflects: "It's funny how things are so fascinating when they're on fire." He has little experience to guide him in his new adventurous life, except for his reading of Terry and the Pirates comics, and Gordon Sinclair's hyper-romantic travelogues. "I was trying to pay attention to things because in the movies it's always some little detail that saves a guy's life ... ," Harry recalls. "And concentrating on one thing at a time at least kept me from running around screaming ... ."
    Schroeder's dialogue gets the tough-guy patter of the time down nicely. "The world can change that quickly, as quick as you snap your fingers." Philip Marlowe couldn't have said it better.
    Harry's story unfolds as an internal monologue addressed to his recently deceased wife, after she has insisted that he return to Asia to clear up a mystery that she has held close all her life. Harry goes to Thailand, still struggling with the deep racism resulting from his wartime experiences; that racism has wounded him and Lily more deeply than he realizes until the end.
    The running monologue addressed to Lily is vivid, funny, understated and ultimately very sad. Recollections Harry shares with Lily in his monologue shape a series of brilliant set pieces, such as his exciting account of the sinking of the Empress. They are served up in a pungent melange of all five senses, expressing the way things looked, smelled and sounded with the immediacy of personal memory. Empress of Asia is an accomplished act of historical imagination and narrative dexterity.

--Ken Tingley

Books In Canada, December 2006:
    This terrific tale of love and war opens as narrator Harry Winslow mourns his beloved wife. As a last request, Lily had asked him to contact a friend from the distant past. So Harry leaves Vancouver for Thailand, in search of his wartime comrade, Michel Ney. As the skein of memory unspools in a final, one-sided conversation with Lily, we get to know Harry better than he knows himself.
    Harry speaks to his dead wife of his boyhood in Vernon, B.C. He recalls his first job as a merchant seaman, and his voyage on the bombed ship of the title. In British Singapore they meet and fall in love; miraculously, they both survive the occupation. Harry has quite a memory. At times it seems a stretch that he would remember, as he was hiding with Michel from the Japanese in Java, the degrees of hotness in various curries, but food in wartime was so important, and this character is so vividly present, that it works. Curries were the very least of his memorable meals.
    The text sparkles and crackles with places and people: shipboard life, nights at Raffles Hotel, years in P.O.W. camps, the Indonesian communists, Japanese occupiers, his fellow prisoners, and always Michel, his saviour. Harry sees everything in close-up, but he so often fails to grasp the big picture that we get exasperated with this surrogate for our own naivete. Wake up, Harry! The people who befriend him, from Eric Shaw, who secures him his first seaman's job before absconding with his money, to Michel Ney, the experienced fixer, and even Lily, more sophisticated than her spur-of-the-moment groom, are all drawn to his pure affability. When Harry's vision is blurred by beriberi, it's the perfect metaphor for a man suffering from mental myopia. The whopper of a secret waiting at the end of his journey makes sense both for Harry and for all marriages. Maybe he should have known. But can we fault a man who not only adored his wife but also worshiped jazz legend Fats Waller? Impossible.

--Nancy Wigston

January Magazine, Best Fiction of 2006:
    In Singapore in 1942, a young seaman named Harry falls in love with an Englishwoman named Lily. They marry quickly. During an air raid, the newlyweds are separated, which sets in motion a chain of events that lead Harry across Southeast Asia before the pair are reunited. Fifty years later in Vancouver Lily, on her deathbed, shares a secret that holds the power to alter the way Harry has looked upon their life together. He journeys to Thailand to unravel the mystery that began so many years before. Empress of Asia is a terrific book and I’m delighted that it is because, like a lot of readers, I waited for it for a long time. At the time of the publication of Kingdom of Monkeys, Schroeder’s first book of short stories, Books in Canada called him “the next great Canadian writer.” It wasn’t an overstatement.

--Sienna Powers

Penticton Western News, November 26, 2006:
    As soon as I heard about the book Empress of Asia, I wanted to read it. Not only is it by a local author (who is married to an old school friend), it is receiving rave reviews. And with good reason - Empress of Asia by Adam Lewis Schroeder has enough different ingredients to please everyone: war, romance, sinking ships and daring prison escapes.
    In 1942 a young merchant sailor from Vernon named Harry Winslow finds himself in Singapore after the bombing and sinking of his ship. It takes Harry only one evening in the bombed city to meet and marry a British woman named Lily. Just as their honeymoon begins, the couple is forced to flee the invading Japanese and they become separated.
    Both Harry and Lily are incarcerated in different Japanese prison camps, only miles from each other. But it's not until after the war that they reconnect and, together, move to Canada.
    Many years later, as Lily lies on her deathbed, she makes a request. She wants Harry to meet the man who saved his life in the prison camps. Harry can't figure out why Lily was in contact with this man, and why she wants them to meet. He decides to travel to Thailand to find out.

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