The Empire of the Sun, by JG Ballard
This book will change you.
When I started reading this book I struggled. I struggled with the dream like tone and ambiance, the long sentences and almost stream of conscious style of the third person narrator following 11 year old Jim. But I persisted because this was my challenge for March. I’ve read many difficult books in my time – I read English Literature – but this was doubly difficult for me because I don’t like reading about wars. I never have. I don’t like films about wars, either, but I felt like this might be an exception for me because it is about a child. Since I write for children, I hoped that gaining some experience of a child’s war would be good for me.
Empire of the Sun is stunning. It follows Jim’s experience of the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War. JG Ballard was himself interned with his parents in this period, which makes the book even more poignant, I think. It is worth reading simply to understand what happened in that period. What happened was pretty gruesome.
But more than that, it felt like a truthful (and I mean that in the broad sense, not in the sense of being factual) account of a civilian’s war, the reality of which was very complex. There is a dream-like quality to the novel, which I think comes from the pairing of the extraordinary images with a almost deadpan narration. Jim never wholly admits that what is happening is horrific. This seems to me to depict beautifully the likely disconnect that a child would experience when faced with so much brutality and horror.
It’s not an easy read, or fun, but it is really worth it.