I have to confess I didn’t know much about the Japanese and Chinese involvement in World War Two at all prior to reading ‘Empire of the Sun’, and that has to be its main appeal: its detailed insight into life in the East during this horrific period of history. That is, perhaps, as far as my interest goes in this book, as in terms of a story I found it hardgoing and dry to read.
Part of that is because of the level of detail; minute geographical points about the airfields and Jim’s routes to and from Amherst Avenue as he rolls around Shanghai were complex and fairly mind-boggling. That might just be my inability to keep up, but everything got very baffling very quickly. For instance, I could have sworn that they travelled for nearly a month to reach Lunghua Airfield Prison, yet it seemed that Jim could just nip back and forth between it and Shanghai, which didn’t seem plausible after everything we’d been told.
It was a repetitive narrative style as well. It felt like Jim’s name would be eternally etched on my memory after being on every second line, a pronoun nowhere to be seen. Likewise with Basie and Dr Ransome; I dreaded seeing them turn up. Part of me thinks the repetitive structure could quite easily represent the mundane nature of war; waiting around for death or further transport, prisoners didn’t have a thrilling life, and it was quite interesting to see that Lunghua pretty much set up a schooling system to combat this. So maybe it’s understandable, but you have to have a lot of patience with this book.
I also felt that there were subtle nuances meant in character’s actions, but these were sometimes indecipherable. Dr Ransome, in particular, was something of an irritating enigma; I could get that Basie was using people left, right and centre, but the implications of Random being corrupt were so nuanced I struggled to see the wood for the trees. It was the same with some of the other adult characters, and even Jim at times when it was unclear whether he accepted or misunderstood his role as camp skivvy.
The most interesting bit, without being flippant, was after the ending. J.G. Ballard’s insights into the war were fascinating, and one comment sparked a particular debate between a friend and I: Ballard claimed the Allies will always be weak for being apologetic for their actions in the war, as no matter what they were combatting, they still felt evil. It was something I’d not considered, but the feeling of guilt perhaps does run a lot of our history, and it was interesting to consider which elements of the war are told not through fact, but through emotion.
Having had this recommended to me, I wouldn’t pass it on to anyone else; although interesting from a historical perspective, as a novel it lacks compelling characters and incidences, and anything that might well be interesting is muddled in the mire.