Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

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Empire Of The Sun :

Winner of 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Shortlisted for 1984 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: Shanghai, British, boy, lost, war

It is funny how we sometimes build up a picture of a book before we’ve read it, only to have all those expectations shattered once we begin. For some reason I expected Empire of the Sun to be a dense book, describing vicious fighting between the Chinese and Japanese in the Second World War. I expected it to be dark and tough going and so was therefore surprised to discover that it was actually very easy to read – the tone was quite light (at least initially) and the central character was not a soldier, but a small boy who finds himself alone on the streets of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. In fact, the young protagonist and the simple prose could even result in this being classed as a young adult book if it were released today.

The central character, Jim, is a boy who has lived the life of luxury. His rich British parents paid for him to go to a good school and for servants to provide for his every need. But then war breaks out and Jim becomes separated from his parents. He learns to fend for himself in the abandoned mansions of Shanghai, but his situations deteriorates as the war progresses. The fact that the book is based on the author’s own experiences during WWII makes the story all the more poignant.

I loved the simple, but effective way that the surroundings were described:

Jim fidgeted in his seat as the sun pricked his skin. He could see the smallest detail of everything around him, the flakes of rust on the railway lines, the saw-teeth of the nettles beside the truck, the white soil bearing the imprint of its worn tyres. Jim counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them, and the globes of mucus which this bored sentry sucked in and out of his nostrils. He watched the damp stain spreading around the buttocks of one of the missionary women on the floor, and the flames that fingered the cooking pot on the station platform, reflected in the polished breeches of the stacked rifles.

My only problem with the book was the detached writing style. Jim let all the problems wash over him and failed to show any of the fear I’d expect from someone in his situation – in fact Jim seemed to enjoy seeing the planes and soldiers. This is probably a realistic way for a child to cope with war, but it meant that the book failed to have any emotional impact on me. Some people probably prefer this lighter writing style, but I like to have a strong emotional connection to the characters.

I haven’t read any other books set in China during WWII and so it was nice to learn a bit more about this lesser known piece of history. This is clearly a very important novel and there were times when I both loved and hated this book for its subtlety, but I think this is one of those books that grows on you after you’ve turned the last page. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience that much, but I am still thinking about Jim and I am sure that I will continue to do so for some time to come.


This is my first experience of Ballard’s writing.

Do you think I’d enjoy his other books?

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  1. kimbofo says:

    I’ve not read the book, but the film is wonderful!

    1. Jackie says:

      kimbofo, I haven’t seen the film, but I can imagine this being one of those rare cases where I enjoy the film more than the book.

  2. Karoliina says:

    It truly is one of those rare cases, at least it was for me. I’m not sure how I would’ve felt if I had read the book first, but now I was even a little disappointed in the book. I recommend watching the film.

    1. Jackie says:

      Karolina, I was going to give this book a lower rating as whilst reading it I was frustrated by the detached writing style, but on reflection I realised that there was a lot to like. I’m keen to get hold of the DVD now – especially now you confirm it is better than the book.

  3. sakura says:

    I too have seen the film and thought it was great. And it’s got a very young Christian Bale in it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sakura, so it will be worth watching just to see what Christian Bale was like as a child! I look forward to it :-)

  4. Sandy says:

    I’ve not seen the movie or read the book, but I think my mom had this on her shelves. And you are right. I don’t know if it is the title, the subject matter or the size of the book, but I was always a little intimidated by it. Crazy, knowing it could pass for YA. I’m going to have to look into the film version.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I have two copies of this book – one looks like a chunkster, the other is a normal sized paperback. I assume that you have the chunkster version with really large, spaced type. It looks intimidating on the shelf, but it really isn’t – you’ll fly through it.

  5. Jeanne says:

    I’m chiming in about the film–I like it a lot, enough to show to my kids recently. Some of the detached feeling is there in the film, but it just makes the horrors more horrible.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, I can see how the detached thing works on screen, but I don’t like that kind of writing in a book. I want to be involved, feeling everything as they do. :-( I look forward to finding out how the book + film compare.

  6. Jessica says:

    The film is wonderful like the others have said but I also watched one of the special features on the DVD which included an intervew with JG Ballard. JG Ballard was talking about how much he enjoyed his war experience as he was kinnda left to do want he wanted unlike his normal upbringing. He talked about it like it was a great adventure which shattered my illusions!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, That is interesting as his love for the war came through really clearly in this book. I didn’t really understand it – especially the fascination with planes. I guess it is a boy thing.

  7. I havent read the book, nor have I seen the film, and no matter how good someone says it is I have the weirdest feeling that I won’t like it, isnt that odd? Why are there some books we irrationally don’t fancy, even though the subject and everything interests us?

    Glad you enjoyed it though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I think that, like me, you might have formed strange incorrect assumptions about this book. I actually think you’ll love this one. I challenge you to give it a try :-)

  8. Aths says:

    This is a book I need to read. I do find myself bothered by a detached writing, but if every thing else about the book is as good as you say, I may probably still enjoy it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Aths, The detached writing style bothered me whilst I was reading it, but as soon as I put the book down I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a strange experience as that doesn’t normally happen when I read something.

  9. James says:

    I read this book as part of my English Lit. GCSE. I didn’t really enjoy the story at the time, but, although I haven’t even looked at it for about fifteen years, I still think about it often and I can remember almost every scene. You’re definitely right when you stay that it’s a book that stays with you.

    I also thought the film was really good.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, I thought that might be the case. I can’t think of any other books that I didn’t really enjoy, but still think about, almost fondly. It is a weird experience!

  10. stujallen says:

    pleased you loved this ,one of my all time favourite books the follow is good ,the rest of his cannon is in a different vein but ones I ve read I ve like the drowned world is a good place to start ,also his autobiography meant to be good I ve got it but not got to it yet ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, It would be interesting to compare his autobiography to this book, but I think The Drowned World is calling to me more at the moment.
      Thanks for the recommendations!

  11. Dan Holloway says:

    Jackie the detached style possibly fits much better the rest of Ballard’s work. I know him best as the author of Crash, on which the stunning David Cronenberg film (not to be confused with the excellent but very different Oscar winning Denzel Washington film!). Although this is probably his best-known work, he’s most often thought of as a writer of transgressive works like Crash, and detachment is one of the key markers of that kind of transgressive style – used as a way of illustrating the disconnection of society and the individuals within it, to convey a sense of the numbness of life and the possibility of fulfilment existing only completely on the outside of society.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, Thanks for letting me know that his detached writing style carries through to the other books. I’m afraid I haven’t watched either of the Crash films (I’m not a big movie goer :-( ) but I am interested in seeing what his other books are like. I’m intrigued by the way I don’t enjoy reading them, but find them very powerful after completion.

  12. JoV says:

    I am always a tad late in commenting these days but this book is truly one that I really want to read. Glad you like it!

    I quite like the idea of reading a book and then watch a movie kind of challenge and I’m signing up to this challenge for the rest of the year and fingers crossed I get to do 2 or 3 books and movie reviews.


    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I enjoy reading the book and then watching the movie too. I’ll be interested to know your thoughts if you dedide that Empire of the Sun should be one of your choices. Good luck with your challenge!

  13. I have both read this and watched the film. I challenge you to read Crash; I had to study it and we all had a visceral reaction to it and I had a run-in with the lecturer who assigned the reading… Happy days. To date, it is the worst book I have ever read and I didn’t enjoy the Cronenberg adaptation either (I did, however, love the other unconnected Crash film, which stars Don Cheadle, not Denzel Washington).

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, LOL! I want to read it just to see why it is the worst book you’ve ever read. I’ve added it to my wish-list and will try to get to it soon. You’ve got me very intrigued :-)

  14. Bill Richardson says:

    I don’t get it about the detachment. It’s all in the title – the camp became Jim’s empire. He loved it. Children, young boys especially, (and dogs for that matter) are infinitely adaptable. There was fear. He was bricking it when he was separated from his mother on the Bund at the start of the invasion. He was a peculiar child but he also had a peculiar and rather privileged upbringing, very much detached from the company of other children.

    I’m not a big fan of Ballard. I’ve read only 3 of his books, but the Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women are both largely autobiographical and both very good. I prefer the latter, which tells the story of what happens when Jim grows up, goes to medical school, drops out, and finally becomes an RAF pilot, gets married, becomes a father yada-yada-yada. He loved planes, even before the war. The war fed this fascination.

    Read the second book – it is an emotional nightmare, but I won’t tell you why because it will spoil it. The Kindness of Women also explains many other aspects of Jim’s character.

    Maybe you are stumbling over the male perspective. He’s not a sentimental writer and unlike many (John Irving for example), he doesn’t usually pander to the female market just because women buy 80% of all books. Nothing against women, and I love John Irving – this is just a fact that writers need to face up to if they don’t want to spend their lives eating out of dustbins.

    1. Jackie says:

      Bill, You make some very good points. As a female reader I do look for the emotional connection in books and this unsentimenatal style will never have the same appeal to me as other books. I can see the quality of the writing and think you are right that this book will appeal to men more than women. I don’t have a problem with that – the perfect book for everyone should be out there somewhere.

  15. I’ve had this on my to-read shelf for so long, and I will read it soon. I will. I promise. I have skim-read your review, and it sounds really good. Books about World War II hold a special place on my shelf, so…

    I’ve not read many War books set in Asia, so this would definitely be a good start. I’ll be back to comment on finishing the book for myself.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, I have read a lot of WWII books, but I think this is the only one set in China that I’ve read. I think that you’ll enjoy it, but I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I loved the movie with a very young Christian Bale.

    1. Jackie says:

      stacybuckeye, I hope to watch it soon. I’m looking forward to seeing how it compares to the book :-)


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