J. G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun

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Empire of the Sun Summary

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Empire of the Sun is a novel written by J. G. Ballard. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. The book takes inspiration from Ballard’s real-life experience during the second World War. A film adaptation was made in 1987, which was directed by Steven Spielberg. The film was nominated for six Oscars and won three British Academy Awards.

It is the night before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Jim, the main character, is the only child of a wealthy British couple who lived in Shanghai, which is occupied by Japanese forces. This concerns everyone, including James’ parents. Jim is merely interested in the war, but not frightened. He believes the soldiers are brave and is fascinated with fighter planes. After Pearl Harbor is attacked, the Japanese open fire in Shanghai.

During the chaos, Jim is separated from his parents. He wanders Shanghai, looking for a place to stay. The homes in his neighborhood have been seized by the Japanese government. Soon he leaves the neighborhood, sleeping near the Bund, an area near Shanghai’s waterfront.

Jim is discovered and sent to a detention camp, where he is reunited with Basie, an American he met at the waterfront, who teaches him survival skills.

Basie and Jim are chosen to leave the detention center for another camp, where they might find Jim’s parents. Dr. Ransome is there. The sick prisoners are forced to search for many days for a camp that will accept them. They can’t find anywhere, and are forced to stay in a truck. They arrived at their new home for the next three years, Lunghua camp. Those years are some of the happiest of Jim’s life.

The prisoners form a community, complete with entertainment and even a school. Jim does chores for Basie and Dr. Ransome, which give him purpose, stability, and a makeshift new family. Jim wants to find his parents, but doesn’t necessarily want to leave Lunghua.

The years pass, and Japan is on the verge of surrender. The camp conditions worsen greatly. Food is running out, and Jim is ill. Dr. Ransome doesn’t have any supplies to help him or any other prisoners.

The Japanese soldiers are becoming more violent, nervous, and unpredictable. The once solid and supportive community of the prisoners is crumbling. Jim tries to remember the better days.

Near continuous American air attacks rain down on Lunghua, and the Japanese soldiers evacuate the camp. The prisoners are allowed to take one suitcase each. Jim learns that the soldiers plan to lead prisoners away from the Americans and execute them all. Many prisoners collapse from exhaustion during the march, and are left to die. Jim struggles between his desire to stay with the prisoners or fall behind with the dying, but is convinced to keep walking until they reach Nantao stadium. Jim is told to play dead so that the soldiers will leave him behind.

Mr. Maxted, another prisoner, dies, and Jim is affected deeply by this. Jim has to decide what to do on his own, and decides to head back to Lunghua. He sees an American plane dropping canisters. He examines one of them, and discovers spam, chocolate, powdered milk, and more American treats. It is the first time in many years he has eaten anything other than sweet potatoes.

Jim is relieved and revived, and continues on his way. He finds Lunghua occupied by some of the British prisoners who have been hoarding some of the canisters that were dropped. They nearly refuse to let Jim in, but Jim lies about riches that he found at Nantao stadium, and they let him in.

Jim is relieved, finally believing he will be allowed to stay at Lunghua, but just as quickly, the other prisoners decide to leave and bring him with them. They pack up their supplies and head back to Nantao stadium. There, the British prisoners make him wait in the truck while they searched for the riches that Jim told them about. Jim tries to quickly escape while they aren’t looking, but barely gets anywhere before he is nearly attacked by another group of ravaged scavengers. But Basie is in this gang, and he stops them from killing Jim. This group decides to take Jim with them as well, to loot and find any supplies that they can. Jim lies again about the contents of Nantao stadium, including the many riches that they will find there. Again, Jim is made to wait in the car, and again, he escapes. Jim runs into Dr. Ransome, who tells him the war is finally over, and that he will be taken him home to his parents.

The novel ends two months after the war has ended. Jim has been reunited with his parents, is finally healthy again, and is about to board a ship bound for England. The family vows never to return to Shanghai again.