The Flowers of War

Written by Geling Yan Nicky Harman (trans.)
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

In 1937, the Japanese capture Nanking, China. An expatriate American priest, Father Engelmann, hopes his church will be respected as a safe, neutral zone. He gives sanctuary to a group of schoolgirls, and then, less willingly, harbors prostitutes and escaped prisoners of war. When the Japanese demand the right to search the church, the priest struggles to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, a teenage student come to terms with the dissolution of a close friendship and her sense that her parents have abandoned her; and Father Engelmann’s assistant develops a wistful attraction for the most beautiful of the prostitutes. As Chinese are massacred and raped outside, the people in the church cling to their island of safety and wrestle with questions of great moral urgency. What are they willing to do to survive? Is it ever right to sacrifice some lives to save others?

This short novel is riveting. I found it impossible to put down and am not surprised that it is the basis of a well-received motion picture by Chinese director Zhang Yimou of Raise the Red Lantern fame. The prose of this translation is clear and straightforward. The people are vividly drawn, believable, and capable of surprising the reader. As the characters’ situation grows more and perilous, we come to truly care about their individual fates. The climax of the story provides an enormous emotional jolt. What happens is heartbreaking yet in a sense inspiring, making this a truly unforgettable novel.