It’s hard to be gay in 1940s America, but not impossible. Zachary hides his natural proclivities towards the handsome sex through the occasional dalliance with slim, small-chested women (preferably with short hair) to keep too many suspicious minds from wondering about his activities and antics. But when one such woman just so happens to be the Major’s wife — and when Zach, upon being caught, invites the man to join in — the Airforce pilot’s career takes a nosedive. In order to punish Zachary, the Major demands that he be taken from the airforce and put behind a desk, never to fly again. It might as well be a death sentence for Zach, who loves flying almost as much as breathing.
Fortunately Zach’s guardian, through favors and connections, has worked to mitigate the situation. Thanks to his dual citizenship, owing to a British mother, Zach ends up serving in the Royal British Navy. Not on a boat, though. Nothing so grand. Zachary is going to be, instead, a Lieutenant Commander on a submarine, far beneath the waves and as far away from the sky as possible. The only tolerable part of this whole situation is for Zach is the thought of all those men in tight, close company. The mind fairly boggles!
Gethin Llewlyn is a young man, not even twenty-five, who is serving both as a sonar operator and steward to the officers, having volunteered for the later position due to the extra money and private bed. He’s taken aside by the Captain and asked to keep an eye on the Yank who may need some time to adjust to a British ship. Something about the American draws Gethin’s interest. Maybe it’s the way Zach asks for his name or teases him. Or maybe it’s how he’s always watching him, always there with a murmured question or comment or a lingering touch.
Just when Gethin starts realizing what he’s feeling and beginning to understand a little more about Zach, though, the war — which has remained little more than an absent thought in the minds of the crew — is brought to their attention. Not only is their ship being followed, but someone is giving away their location. But who, and how? As tensions mount outside the ship, Gethin and Zach find themselves racing to find the spy while keeping their own secrets hidden.
Zach, we are told in the early chapters, is be a bit of a reprobate. His guardian calls him a lothario, and he has no qualms paying for company or seducing a flustered young virgin. He is — or was — a talented pilot, and is now serving on the submarine. He spends his time loitering in his bunk, trying vainly to flirt with Gethin. He knows the young man is not only a virgin, but absolutely clueless about his own sexuality, which makes Zach want him even more since, as far as Zach can tell, there are only two other gay men on the ship and he isn’t interested in either.
Gethin joined the Navy at 18 to get away from his father. Growing up on a sheep farm in Wales, he’s used to physical labor, but being a sonar operator in the Navy requires more brains than brawn. Gethin is keen to learn and can’t help but admire men who are more educated than he is. It’s an admiration that comes across a little like hero worship. When he finally catches on that he’s interested in Zach as more than a job given to him by the Captain, it’s enough to make him ill with surprise. The realization that Zach, the man he’s crushing on, has been flirting with, is enough to send him over the moon.
The first half of this book is a slow, sodden burn that — I think — is supposed to build up a friendship between the two men. However, it mostly came across to me as Zach being useless and lazy and Gethin being a glorified babysitter with a crush. Days (weeks, months?) pass between one moment and the next with no mention of time passing. Mail is delivered, the sub surfaces and dives, occasionally takes on supplies and fuels, but none of that actually happens in the book. Gethin and Zach don’t really talk about anything. They talk, they chat, but there’s never any substance to it. I think we’re supposed to see a friendship being built up, but between the power disparity (senior officer to lesser-ranked) and the lack of personality, it just ends up being chit-chat to no purpose and makes Zach look boring, as well as predatory.
For all that he misses the sky, Zach never really talks about his time in the airforce. We’re told he talks about it, but we never see it for ourselves. Likewise, there’s no sense of being on a submarine in this book. There’s no sensation of an enclosed space, tight quarters, or any of the bits and bobs that make a setting come alive. It’s a grey box that the characters sit in, and I regret that. And the same goes for the war. For the first half of the book, you wouldn’t know this ship was involved in World War II at all since it’s almost never mentioned and, when it is, is so offhand it barely registers.
To be brutally honest, I fought hard not to DNF this book. I was bored for the first half of it, bored by the characters, bored by the lack of plot, setting, tension, or anything. The one and only redeeming factor was the writing. The author’s skill is undeniable as Francis manages to not only write well, but to do so in a way that feels both period appropriate and yet comfortably readable. Unfortunately, the characters were so uninteresting that I spent more time looking at the page count to see when the book would be over rather than looking forward to what was on the next page. Zach is supposed to be filled with personality. Instead, he felt boring and sleazy. Gethin is supposed to be a plucky young man full of cleverness and potential, but comes off more like a wide-eyed ingenue, all but clasping his bosom and sighing. He does have more of a character arc than Zach, but it’s still very shallow.
Their relationship is all implied and never feels warranted. If there were any conversations with more depth than casual chit-chat, they happened off page. By the time the plot begins to show up, more than halfway into the story, it’s all tell instead of show, and I just didn’t care. It’s not a bad plot, the story details do start to show up, and there are clever moments, but you have to get through the most banal and listless romance to get there. Personally, I wish I could have skipped the first two-thirds of this book and just read the last 30% or so. Unfortunately, already sour and bored, I struggled the hardest through the best parts of this book. There is a good adventure story buried in here, but it’s covered by the languid, drifting conversations about shaving, coffee, and mending.