3 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
Once in a Blue Year by Michael D. Durkota is a debut novel in the Other Fiction genre. It examines the psyche of Navy personnel during wartime and the emotional toll on the people left behind. Two young Navy petty officers, Trevor and Dan, are cut before a Gulf War submarine mission for different reasons. Dan is given a medical discharge and Trevor is replaced at the last minute due to concerns about his uncontrollable behavior. Before Lead Petty Officer Nathan ships out, he invites Dan to stay in his home; it’s a good arrangement since Dan needs a place to live and Nathan would have a friend watching over his wife and baby while he’s away.
Dan and Trevor also deal with the flashbacks of a traumatic event at sea. In Dan’s case, going home is a major adjustment since he is accustomed to the military culture and being on a war footing. On one hand, he is glad to be away from the ship. Still, he has lost her bearings and needs to adjust to the “new normal.”
Certainly the issue of men returning to civilian life after the military is not a new one. Still, the author offers a fresh take on this well-worn topic. I liked the juxtaposition of Dan living with Nathan’s wife Heather while Nathan is away. It allows the reader to see Dan coping with the next stage of his life alongside Heather handling Nathan’s long absences. Her daily chalkboard counting of the days Nathan has been away is a good plot device, particularly as circumstances change. It’s also interesting to see that Trevor is so upset that he was cut from the mission while Nathan volunteered for it, even though he had just come home from a long deployment. It is clear that Trevor and Nathan are more comfortable away at sea than being home.
I quickly grew to care about Dan and Trevor, who are interesting, layered characters. The story is written in third person and switches between Trevor and Dan’s perspectives. The supporting characters could have been fleshed out more. Heather is upset that Nathan is away yet again on a long, dangerous deployment. Still, I didn’t have a good sense of her other than as a cliché, the young military wife who has been left behind at home. Jags, a fellow petty officer, is comical in his questionable mental state. It is unclear whether he is faking it to get out of sea duty. In particular, I think Nathan’s character could have been more developed. The author whets the reader’s appetite with a glimpse of Nathan’s possibly unstable personality, notably in a flashback early in the story. I would have liked to know more about him.
The story is quietly powerful. The author’s lyrical writing style is a joy to read, purely from a writing standpoint. The imagery is flawless. Before the submarine leaves port, there is “one last glimpse of horizon, one last gulp of fresh air.” When Dan goes to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for a job interview, I was transported to the claustrophobic maze of rooms, complete with chemical and plastic smells, the buzz of fluorescent lights, and thick air. With a subtle touch, the author always made me feel like I was right there, whether it was at sea in flashbacks or stateside with Trevor in the barracks and Dan and Heather at home.
The pacing moves along at a snail’s pace. Normally a fast reader, it took me a relatively long time to finish this book. There were several passages about Dan developing photos in a makeshift darkroom that were a few pages too long and tedious to read. In general, it seems that the story is being viewed in slow motion. Dan struggles to transition to life after the Navy, however slowly. I think it’s natural that a submariner coming home would have the feeling of “what do I do now?” As for Trevor, the emotional angle is portrayed well. His lingering insecurities and anger from an abusive childhood affect his relationships as well as his job. While the pacing is slow, I found the exploration of the characters’ mindsets fascinating.
I rate this book 3 out of 4 stars. I would give it 3.5 stars if the rating system allowed. The story is well-written with a lyrical style that borders on poetry at times. I find myself still thinking about the characters and that’s always a sign of a good book. Still, the plot moves along too slowly throughout most of the book. There is nothing propelling the story forward, although this may be intentional given the subject matter, primarily Dan’s inability to move in a new direction after the Navy. I would recommend this book to military families who can relate to the emotional costs of long deployments. Really anyone who appreciates excellent writing will enjoy this one.
Once in a Blue Year
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon
Like bookowlie's review? Post a comment saying so!