Posts Tagged ‘Empire of the Sun’

This week’s book was gruelling reading.

Book 7 – Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. The book follows the experiences of Jim, the child of British ex-pats living in China when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour. As the Japanese take control of Shanghai, the 11 year old Jim is separated from his parents.

The book follows his experiences of the war, first living alone in the deserted mansions of Shanghai, then in the care of the unscrupulous Basie, and onto life in the Lunghua prisoner camp. We see Jim become wily but also unsure of his loyalties, separated from the other prisoners by age, heritage and attitude. The reader is given the impression that Jim protects some of the other camp prisoners, but there is a sense of Jim being unaware of the actions and attitudes of those around him who protect and watch over him. By tying himself to Basie he lives a life on the edge of morality, crossing over it as the need arises.  Despite being a prisoner of the Japanese he finds himself hoping for their military success, and in awe of the pilots he sees fly off into their own experience of war.

Although the book isn’t a direct autobiography, Ballard stated that he drew on his own experiences of the camp to write the book, and that gives it an awful resonance. Jim becomes inured to the death around him, fascinated rather than appalled at the bodies and bones he sees. The descriptions of violence are generally very bare but every so often something is described in almost cartoon-like colour and vividness which was hard for me to read.

Jim is clearly damaged by the experience and yet seems to gain a degree of emotional strength from the art of surviving; this resilience is shown to be a facade though, because for all his experiences he only feels safe, and at home, in the camp.

I read this book knowing what it was about but not knowing how hard-edged it would be, and I think it’s one that will stay with me, whether I want it to or not. It was tough and I need to read something completely different next.

It has encouraged me to leave the gritty stories aside for a while, but it was powerfully written and very effective.  As far as reviews go, I think the book did what it was trying to do, and that’s all any writer can want.

Happy reading,

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