Empire of the Sun

Written by J. G. Ballard
Review by Ann Chamberlin

I had not read this book (originally published in 1984) or seen the Spielberg movie and thought it was about time I did one or the other; it should be done.

Ten-year-old Jim lives a privileged life with his British expatriate parents in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. He loves airplanes, and his world is a jumble of newsreel images of war. The day after Pearl Harbor, everything changes. He is separated from his parents and survives for a month, a ghost-like existence, among the empty, ransacked houses of the European community, living on cocktail crackers and olives, drinking from swimming pools. From there he goes on to ingratiate himself with an exploitative American cabin steward, Basie, by undertaking any menial job, and finally ends the war in a prison camp on rations that get slimmer and slimmer.

I can’t say that this is a triumph-of-the-human-spirit sort of story, told with a brutally unflinching eye as it is. Jim grows cynical and adopts a tough, self-protective shell as his childhood lengthens to the brink of adulthood in the constant face of death and hunger. When he sees the flash of the atomic bomb across the Chinese Sea and Communists flood into the place vacated by the Japanese, he remains confused about where one war ends and the other begins — as we all may rightly be. Jim, who lies almost dead himself next to a dying kamikaze pilot about his age, prophetically warns: “One day China would punish the rest of the world” for what had been done to it during this time.