Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Review: Empire of the Sun

J.G. Ballard wrote Empire of the Sun in 1984, forty years after his imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp during WWII in Shanghai. The book is a novel, though it is based upon his experiences in Shanghai during the war. The story begins on the eve of the Pearl Harbour attack on the American fleet, and ends with the liberation of Shanghai by Allied forces. During this time, four years in total, the main character, Jim, grows from precocious school boy to hardened survivor, keeping alive any way he can in the harsh environment of the Lunghua prison camp.

This book is not a heartwarming tale. There is no redeeming action, the characters are not sympathetic, and there is no hope for the future, even after the war ends and those imprisoned are allowed to return to their former homes. It is the stark reality of a possible life inside enemy-occupied territory. Jim is emotionless throughout the story: there is no attachment, no sentimentality, no crying for home. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road on more than one occasion, making the most disturbing part of the novel not the brutal realities that Jim faced, but Ballard's statement in the foreward: "For the most part this novel is an eyewitness account of events I observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within the camp at Lunghua." Even for those interested in stories about the Second World War, I would not recommend it. It is harsh, bleak, sickening and, as mentioned before, brutal. I suppose, that being said, Ballard succeeds, as war is all of those things and more, more than we could possibly imagine. Two and a half toy fighter planes out of five.

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