Book Group discuss Empire of the Sun


Empire of the Sun, by J G Ballard, published 1984.


Peggy introduced the book, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the James Tait Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  

Peggy was surprised that we had chosen to read a book written 40 years ago; she had found it to be a positive experience because it illustrated the indomitability of the human spirit. 

The novel illustrated what happens when society breaks down, and those elements for human survival - food, water, shelter and healthcare - are no longer present.  The world known to these (pampered) expats is sliding into anarchy.  Events, described in detail such as inadequate food, arbitrary punishments and killings,  were upsetting for many of us.  It was agreed that the structure of the camp was what the interned people needed, despite the appalling conditions.   People need structure.  

The protagonist - Jim Graham - is an 11-year old boy, living in the wealthy environment of the International Settlement in Shanghai, when it is attacked by the Japanese.  Jim is separated from his parents and from the security he has known, and is forced to fend for himself - and grow up.  Jim had been surrounded by Chinese servants, but didn’t know them - they were faceless to the British expat community.  Jim is shocked, after the Japanese invasion,  to be slapped in the face by one of his Chinese carers.   The novel is a roman a clef and we know from subsequent writings of the author that the trauma of this experience - firstly in an abandoned Shanghai save for Chinese and Japanese,  and then in the camp run by the Japanese, was lifelong.   

We were reminded that Jim was only a child when at one point (before being interned)  he returns to his home, guarded by a Japanese soldier, and sees the disarray of his mother’s bedroom, concluding  that his mother had been dancing.  An adult would see an alternative scenario of the chaos he found.    

We discussed how Jim survived this period of his life - by making himself useful, but also by becoming feral.   He also experienced periods of madness.  Other people found survival insurmountable, and gave up; this is particularly heartrending during the final death march (after the atomic bomb signaled the end of the war and Japan’s defeat).  

The author’s description of the colonial British expats who were interned is scathing.  Many of them lacked kindness. One standout character was Dr Ransome, whom we thought was modelled on Jim’s father.  It is Dr Ransome (now wearing an american uniform) who eventually reunites Jim with his parents.  We discussed how the good doctor had survived when so many had perished.

The portrait of Jim is one of a child who sees the immediate world around him through a child’s eyes.  Jim develops an admiration for the Japanese, for their military might and their airplanes, but as the war turns to defeat for the Japanese, he transfers his admiration to the Americans with their Mustangs and bombers.  (Apparently, the author J G Ballard maintained a lifelong admiration for nuclear weapons, most likely as a result of the atom bomb deployment which marked the annihilation of Japanese military might).   Jim lives in the reality of war as a continuum (because it’s the only thing he knows - he is, after all, just a little boy, and believes  that the next war will follow (as it did, in Korea, in 1950). 

We discussed why the Japanese were disposed to feed the people in the camps (but not the Chinese).  Also discussed why (on earth) the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, thus bringing the might of the USA down upon it.  This led to a discussion about the Germany/Japan Axis powers;  about Lend/Lease from the USA into Great Britain;  and the money that is made during wartime.  

Jim survived, but was unable to share his experiences with his parents.  

Our discussion concluded with the recommendations of other books about China, including The Wild Swans; Three daughters of China by Jung Chang, and The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. 

It was agreed that this (older) novel was an excellent choice, and led to an informed discussion. 

Thank you, Peggy.  

Katharine Cl.

January 19 2024.