Monday, 22 April 2013

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

Hmm, three or four stars? This was good, but I don't think I'll read it again. On the other hand, that particular feeling does not say that this was a mediocre book. But that personal gut reaction is what I tend to use for star ratings - four stars means I would like to or wouldn't mind reading it again. Five stars are books I feel the need to own.

So this is a three star review, but it is probably a better book than that.

J.G. Ballard looks back at his experiences during World War II through a novel. Fictionalized, he manages to tell the story of Jim, a British ten-year-old who is present in Shanghai with his parents when Pearl Harbour occurs and war is declared between the Americans and the Japanese. (British? His parents would certainly consider themselves so, but Jim has never been to England, and muses at times about joining the Japanese air force - not out of any patriotic leanings, but because they have the power and the airplanes he longs to fly.)

Separated from his parents in the first days of this part of the war, Jim wanders around Shanghai, and eventually ends up in an internment camp for the duration. His parents are absent for the vast majority of the story

Ballard has a knack for expressing Jim's feelings about the war in ways that are simultaneously childlike and devastating. The book covers Jim's life from 10 to 14, and he grows accustomed to the war, to expect it as the normal sequence of events, and tries to figure out life as though it will always be that way.

The adults around him are startled and sometimes perturbed by Jim's adaptation to a life in wartime, to life in a camp, to life as a prisoner. They try to exploit him, teach him, or ignore him. Jim, in turn, doesn't understand why the grownups around him haven't adapted to the war the way he has, why they don't, on some level, enjoy it.

As the Japanese get closer and closer to defeat in the Pacific, life at the camp becomes more tenuous and dangerous. Jim is forced on a death march, food supplies are cut off, bandits roam the countryside, groups of prisoners are looking to loot whatever they can. The relative order of the camp fades into even more chaos, and Jim is no longer certain that he is even alive.

The portion of the book that takes place when relative order has been restored is fairly brief, and we never find out if Jim manages to truly believe that he isn't dead, or that war isn't the normal condition of life. It makes me wonder how Ballard himself coped. How he managed to negotiate a world that he knew to be fundamentally fragile.

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