I finished up Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard just a few days ago. This book was eye-opening for me because I had never thought about how World War II impacted China. Honestly, I was unaware that Japan held so much power in China during this time. Not only that, but I was also unaware that Japan set up internment camps within China to hold Europeans, Americans, and Chinese civilians and soldiers.
I’ve read quite a few novels about WWII, some about concentration camps, some about the interment of Japanese Americans, some about Nazi occupations of Europe, but this novel was different. Although it was a memoir, like many of the others, the protagonist, Jamie (Jim) is the most optimistic protagonist I’ve come across in this genre. The story begins just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Jim is only 9 years old. In many ways, he doesn’t understand the war, but in other ways he is more observant and his ideas about the war surpass the logic of adults when it comes to witnessing violence and other acts of war. He can be brutally honest at times, which can make him seem callous to what is happening around him, but if you take into account the atrocities he is witnessing, Jim is a likable character.
A (kind of) short synopsis: Jim is a British boy living in Shanghai with his parents at the start of the war. Soon after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the Japanese troops within Shanghai take over the European, American, and Chinese troops stationed in Shanghai, taking control of the city, and most of the country. During the confusion and chaos of this quick takeover, Jim loses connection with his parents. He roams the streets of Shanghai for some time, meeting some interesting characters, while searching for his parents. Eventually, he decides to surrender to the Japanese, which results in him ending up at Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center (an internment camp). Jim’s ability to see the good in everyone, even the Japanese (who were considered the enemy) and his resourcefulness enable him to survive the war.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Reading books like Empire of the Sun continually remind me of the perseverance of the human spirit, even when the world is crumbling.
I would recommend this novel if you enjoy history, WWII stories, memoirs, airplanes (Jim loves airplanes), and stories of hope/optimism.