Medusa LBC – Empire of the Sun Write Up

Medusa LBC

Date:  Wednesday 14th of November 2012
Time:  7:30pm
Address: 8-10 Town Street, Horsforth, Leeds 


* * * * * S P O I L E R S * * * * *
* * * * * S P O I L E R S * * * * *
 * * * * * S P O I L E R S * * * * *  

THE BLURB (from Amazon) 
From the master of dystopia, comes his heartrending story of a British boy’s four year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai – a mesmerising, hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches. It blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown utterly out of joint.
Rooted as it is in the author’s own disturbing experience of war in our time, it is one of a handful of novels by which the twentieth century will be not only remembered but judged.
We were a small but chatty group on the final Medusa LBC of the year. Once we had drinks in our hands and dumped ourselves onto the comfy chairs we eagerly began. We had our chatty heads on and covered an awful lot of different issues. Here, I’ll attempt to get down as much as possible, without this becoming a book in its own right!
‘So, the film is terrific…but the book is SO MUCH BETTER’
Naturally, we began with our primary protagonist – Jamie Graham – whom we all loved. At once mature, adventurous and energetic, he is also small, terrified and forced to create a place for himself in a very unfamiliar world. On top of that, Jamie was a truly likeable little chap. The way he saw the world around him was so impressively captured – at once mature – due to his experiences, but also open and adventurous despite his conditions – due to his age. Children are – after all – very resilient. We considered the two great betrayals that he faced – the rejection of the English by the Japanese aggressors and the reality of being (emotionally) abandoned by this parents.   
J.G Ballard crafted this book as a fictional representation of his actual experiences as a young boy in a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. There are details and notes that it was hard for us to imagine that anyone *not* involved would have thought to include. One of us referred to the book as having a very authentic tone, which greatly added to the overall immersive effect. The characters seemed real and with great depth. It was almost easier to regard them as real people, reflected on a page, than as being creatures from the imagination. One book clubber had nightmares after a particularly emotive scene – this is a book that you start to take personally.
Also the Peter Pan aspect that he seemed to describe – that ‘Death will be the next big adventure’ – struck us as so sad, so poignant, but so true to life. His worries that he wouldn’t recognise his parents should the war ever end were just heartbreaking to us and more than one of us had to take breaks during the book to gather our own emotions up.
It was particularly interesting to read a book that orientated around the perspective of a little boy in Japan-occupied China. All of us had some degree of knowledge about World War Two. Geographically, we Europeans tend to focus on the conflicts that occurred directly on our doorsteps, however, there has been greater emphasis in the last few years on the war in the Pacific (we briefly discussed Band of Brothers and the Pacific here – excellent tv shows both – do watch if you’re interested in learning more about the war; albeit in a fictionalised context) but never from a viewpoint such as this. Jamie is a victim of circumstance, however he himself is never a victim. 
It was remarkable how much more terrifying the events were to us once we reconciled that all of these events were happening to a little boy! One of our clubbers frequently visits Singapore and they found a number of parallels between the experience of that city and Shanghai that convinced them of the accuracy of the depiction of events within the book.
…this is a book that you start to take personally.
Despite the age of the main character being so significant to us as readers, we actually over ever get to view Jamie behaving fully as a child in one short section at the beginning of the novel. In the immediate aftermath of the war, all the Europeans are rounded up and evacuated or imprisoned (Jamie doesn’t find out which happened to his parents until later on). 
Here we see him ride his bike inside the house, eat everything that he can find and generally have a lot of fun before it becomes clear that the grown up’s are not returning. From the moment that Jamie decided to surrender to the Japanese, we begin to see him mature. His logic is entirely understandable – while they may not be the people that he knows; they are adults and he instinctively feels that they will take care of him. Their rejection of him was incredibly harsh. A lesser person would have been crushed, but Jamie continued to find inventive and impressive ways to survive. 
As one, we all admired his tenacity tremendously. Later on in the book, while interred at the Prisoner of War camp; there were still moments where it was clear that he was searching for an adult that would help him take care of himself despite all the evidence that no one had the energy or will to do so.
The death of his one friend – the Japanese soldier was another truly heartbreaking moment for all of us. We found it to be particularly sensitively described and understood exactly how Jamie was feeling at that moment. Of course – a testament to the author’s skill I suspect – we also empathized with the position of the other prisoners of war – who were somewhat less sympathetic to the death of one of their ‘national’ enemies.
Here we wandered off for a moment and reflected on our changing survival skills. How would we cope in that situation? Would we be so resilient? Would our children? We were all aware of the moral and social imperative to take care of each other as a collective to ensure that you retain some sense of self – especially in an interment camp. Nevertheless, when the zombies inevitably start to rise – I think it’s every person for themselves!!
Other relationships that struck us as particularly noteworthy included Jamie’s friendship with Mrs Jenkins. The neighbours that treated him so coldly, yet we all took on board their needs and considerations when Jamie viewed the room from their perspective. Honestly, what an insightful kid – we couldn’t be more impressed with him. 
Throughout the book he acquired or taps into a phenomenal ability to put himself into other characters shoes, giving him empathy if not always total clarity. We also found that we were mentally reminding ourselves to take into account his age. This chapter he is 11 years; in this one he turns 12 years. Aside from being interesting in its own right, it also grounded the plot within set time frames. Though there were few Yippee moments within this book – we couldn’t help whooping with delight when he retained his golf shoes!
Throughout the book, there is a continuing running motif of light breaking through. In a book that is full of harsh realities, the effect caused by this is just magical. This made so much sense in terms of being set in the land of the rising sun, but additionally makes for the characters involved, especially with regards to the end of the war – something that we – the reader – knew was inevitable but which the characters had no guarantees that they would see.
A book that we would whole heartedly recommend to established readers of all sorts of tastes. We loved the writing, the characters and found the way the plot was handled to be uplifting and powerful. An excellent read – do pick it up if you get a chance.
Other books mentioned:
Primo Levi
The boy in the striped pyjamas.
TV mentioned:
Band of Brothers

The Pacific

I know right? Thats the average score. The AVERAGE.
Trailer to the 1987 film. Also excellent.
For further details, please email me at or tweet me @LeedsBookClub!
Contact the bar on @MedusaBar
And feel free to let us know your thoughts using #MedusaLBC!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s