• Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
• Hardcover: 279 pages
• Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 1984
• ISBN: 0671530518
• Genre: Historical Fiction
• Recommended For: Readers interested in World War II, particularly the war in the Pacific. Anyone interested in viewing war through the eyes of a child.
Quick Review: Earns an 88 %, or 4.4 stars out of 5. Check out my rubric for my detailed assessment. Empire of the Sun Rubric
An important novel, Empire of the Sun provides insight to what it’s like to experience war through the eyes of a child, and gives readers an excuse to educate themselves on the war in the Pacific during WWII.
How I Got Here: Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun has always been a favorite film, and I have been meaning to read the book for years. One of the tasks in The Seasonal Reading Challenge required reading one of the “Best War Novels”, so I jumped at the opportunity to cross this one off my TBR list.
The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis
The classic, award-winning novel, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film, tells of a young boy’s struggle to survive World War II in China.
Jim is separated from his parents in a world at war. To survive, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him.
Shanghai, 1941 — a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war…and the dawn of a blighted world.
Ballard’s enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.
My Analysis and Critique:
Empire of the Sun is an important book, both as a historical work and as an example of a child’s experience in war. Immediately when I started to read it, I thought that it is a work that should be taught in school, right alongside The Diary of Anne Frank, as it provides insight into the World War II Pacific experience. Yet, it would be a pretty hard read for youth readers, as, at times, it was a pretty hard read for me. Certain parts of the plot were hard to follow, and this is why Empire of the Sun doesn’t earn 5 stars with me. This is also why I could say what I never say: the movie was better than the book in a few ways.
-Imagery and setting: WWII Shanghai came to life via Ballard’s writing. The descriptions of the city, the people, and the experiences were very vivid, and most often were shocking. I saw the city before Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese occupied Shanghai, but allowed the residents to live and work pretty much as they always had before. Yet, this city is already a wasteland of poverty and death:
Refugees from the towns and villages around Shanghai were pouring into the city. Wooden carts and rickshaws crowded Amherst Avenue, each loaded with a peasant family’s entire possessions. Adults and children bent under the bales strapped to their backs, forcing the wheels with their hands. Rickshaw coolies hauled at their shafts, chanting and spitting, veins as thick as fingers clenched into the meat of their swollen calves. Petty clerks pushed bicycles loaded with mattresses, charcoal stoves and sacks of rice. A legless beggar, his thorax strapped into a huge leather shoe, swung himself along the road through the maze of wheels, a wooden dumbbell in each hand. He spat and swiped at the Packard when Yang tried to force him out of the car’s way, and then vanished among the wheels and pedicabs and rickshaws, confident in his kingdom of saliva and dust. (12)
This is the world Jim, the protagonist, grows up in, and once Pearl Harbor is attacked, the city spirals into mass confusion, and Jim is caught up in the middle of it, surrounded by violence and death. As Jim moves from war-torn Shanghai to an internment camp, Ballard expertly illustrates what it was truly like, through the eyes of a child.
-Characterization: Jim is a sad, strange boy dealing with his world turned upside down and inside out. Early in the novel, he is reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and it’s immediately clear that his experiences will be very Alice-like. Ballard’s Jim is a very needy boy–he is starving for attention from his parents, and once he is separated from them, he is starving for attention from any and all adults around him. Jim is also a survivor–he does whatever it takes to get through his experiences, whether it means cozying up to the Japanese enemy, offering up whatever he has or could get to the morally-corrupt adults, or manipulating whatever system is in place so that he can get what he needs the most.
All of Ballard’s minor characters come to life via his descriptions and dialogue. Jim encounters a variety of people during his war experience: Chinese street thugs, Japanese soldiers and officers, British elite trying to cope with their new limited circumstances, and American con artists, to name a few. Everyone he sees and encounters comes are realistic and true.
-The Book as History Lesson: I learned so much from this book, and what it didn’t tell me, I sought out via my husband (a history buff) or the internet. This is my favorite kind of book, the kind that drives me to seek knowledge. I feel now that I understand quite a bit more about the war in the Pacific, and what it was like to experience the war in Shanghai. Most likely, I will seek further information on this area and period of history because of my reading of this book. This is one of the greatest achievements of any book: the ability to spur on the reader to seek more.
What Didn’t Work:
-Plot Development/Writing Style: So maybe I’m not a good reader, or I just didn’t get a few of the scenes, but at times the plot just doesn’t make sense. For example, young Jim thinks he’s responsible for starting the war after watching a Japanese cruiser fire upon a British ship in the Bund river. I know, from having watched the movie, that the Japanese ship is making use of a signal lamp and that Jim, having some childish fun, uses his own lamp to signal back to the ship. Right after this, the ship fires upon the British, causing Jamie to think he might’ve mistakenly signaled something that caused the Japanese aggression. Yet, in the book, all I see is Jamie banging on the window while he watches the Japanese signaling, the Japanese firing on the Brits, and then, while battle ensues, Jim sits on the bed thinking he started the whole thing:
Jim watched them somberly. He realized that he himself had probably started the war, with his confused semaphores from the window that the Japanese officers in the motor launch had misinterpreted. (28)
So, apparently the Jim’s lamp signaling happened, I just never saw it.
This kind of reader confusion happens a couple of times in the book, and I blame Ballard’s awesome use of imagery. His descriptions are so good that somehow they actually hide the plot. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t, what was happening and what was simply in Jim’s head. My husband thinks this confusion might be intentional on Ballard’s part, to truly illustrate the confusion of a child in war. This could most likely be the case, but it’s somewhat hard on the reader.
This is one of the most rarest of occasions, as I’m going to say that in a lot of ways I preferred the movie over the book. Of course, the movie doesn’t quite bring to life the characters, particularly Jamie, as well as the book, and I didn’t get all of the cultural and historical background that I got in the book. Yet, as a story, for me, it worked better. I wasn’t confused by plot that was made ambiguous by creative narrative styles and imagery, and I preferred the ending. The movie did cut out a good chunk of Jim’s post-war experience, which I was fascinated by, but still, as a story, I preferred it. I really can’t believe I’m saying that–I never say that. But, I definitely recommend the book alongside the movie for a very educational and moving experience.