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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

Empire of the Sun - Book Review

In his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun J.G. Ballard tells us how he survived his adolescent years alone in an internment camp under the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II. I first learned of Ballard’s story through Steven Spielberg’s wonderful film of the same name, which I watched when it came out in 1989. And then I read the book. This was just before I left America to live in Japan for two years, and I knew then that I wanted to see Shanghai. Ballard’s descriptions of growing up in pre-war Shanghai as the son of a wealthy British textile manager sound like a fairy tale with country clubs, elaborate expatriate costume parties, and as Jim the young boy says, “there was opulence.” Meanwhile, the Japanese have the city surrounded and a siege mentality has taken hold of its Chinese and Western residents alike. When the war does come on December 8, 1941, Jim and his father are initially separated from the mother. Shortly thereafter, Jim and his father are separated at a hospital where his father is recuperating from wounds. Jim first takes shelter first in his home and then a series of abandoned British expatriate homes around his neighborhood in the International Concession. Jim then wanders the city for weeks, avoiding Japanese patrols and Chinese bandits, in his daily search for sustenance. Eventually Jim is picked up by two American refugees, Basie and Frank, who have been sheltering on the Whangpoo in a grounded, half-sunken liner. Thus begins Jim’s education in scrounging, grifting, and basically surviving. The three are taken into an internment camp, where Basie becomes the de-facto slum lord, and Jim one of his useful minions. It’s clear that Jim develops great affection for Basie, as a father-figure that has been lacking. But Basie’s only interest is in himself and staying alive at all costs. He uses Jim on dangerous errands, hiding the real reason from the naïve youth. But in this way, Jim learns how to survive. At war’s end, Jim is left to wander alone, and the skills taught him by Basie help him survive. He is reunited with his parent’s who had been interned in a different camp. Jim has changed; his adolescent years having been spent learning to be an adult. It is a riveting and moving story, all the more so because it is a true story. One of the first places I visited when I moved to East Asia after college was Shanghai (see the blog I wrote about this on the website). I wished to see where the story that had so moved me had taken place. It was otherworldly, strolling down the Bund along the Huangpu (Whangpoo) River. I quote from my novel Above the Water:

Stretching inland from the Whangpoo River for miles was Shanghai’s International Settlement—the British concession. Behind high compound walls, grand homes—built in typical English fashion—were occupied by wealthy families and their Chinese servants. Within the International Settlement one found Gothic and Romanesque churches as well as the manicured grounds of exclusive country clubs. Just to the south of the International Settlement was the French Concession, or “Frenchtown” to the other Westerners. The French Concession was a more eclectic mix of Western residences, Chinese-style homes and temples, and Russian churches.

In 1992, the year I visited, the colonial Western-style buildings still dominated Shanghai’s waterfront. When I decided to start writing historical fiction, Shanghai was the natural candidate for my novel. I hope to convey to the readers in my novel Above the Water what this remarkable city was like more than seventy-five years ago, just as Ballard’s book did for me.


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