Ballard’s book is special because it gives the reader a unique perspective on wartime life in China during WWII and the cruelty suffered by prisoners, Chinese citizens, and even the Japanese soldiers at that time. Each in their own way became a victim of war, even though some suffered more than others. The prisoners, such as Jim, suffered a great deal of agony because of starvation and abuse, while the Chinese citizens became the targeted victims of war when their nation came under Japanese invasion. Interesting, we learn from the book that the Japanese soldiers were also victims because in many ways they were slaves for their own country, slaves who were forbidden to form friendships with prisoners such as Jim. As readers, we are able to experience this firsthand through Jim’s unique bond with the young Japanese soldier near the end of the book. The soldier offered Jim a mango, and Ballard’s purpose to this was to use the mango as a symbol of the removal of all the complications and hatred caused by the war that doesn’t really have anything to do with Jim and the soldier.
Ballard’s novel is also special because he wrote this book from a foreigner’s point of view rather than describing the war as experienced by a Chinese citizen. He made Jim, a character who came from an upper class background where he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle but tumbled to the same level as all other prisoners of war.
The book is a work of fiction, but Ballard’s experiences have contributed to its depth and quality. Although it is a made up story, Ballard writes with such manner that he avoids emotion and writes as descriptively and as accurately detailed as possible, to place us imaginatively into the novel.
Jim set off searching for his parents in the beginning, and throughout the book we encounter his experiences of the war, gaining more acquaintance as time passes. We also come to learn that the war has driven Jim mad, for he “hoped his parents were safe and dead.” Jim’s madness is evident in this line, and Ballard wanted to emphasize the fact that war has changed everyone, and made them cold. People like Jim were numb to their own emotions as the war ended, and supposedly finally finding his parents after four difficult years was meant to be a tear shedding event. Instead Ballard didn’t even mention the moment Jim was reunited with his parents, symbolizing it was no longer that great of a deal for Jim. The time line simply leapt to his life back at Amherst Avenue, as if nothing had ever happened, but he will never return to his prewar innocence. His home after the war “seemed as much as an illusion as the sets of the Shanghai film studios.” Other than wishing his parents were safe and dead, somewhere near the end of the war in the book Ballard also wrote that Jim wished himself dead as well, and was rather disappointed to find himself alive, even though he had considered himself as half dead.
The book explores humanity through characters that the author has created. For example Basie and Dr. Ransome represent two different types of human being under the stress of war. At some point in the novel they both check Jim’s teeth, yet for completely opposite purposes. Dr. Ransome is a person who gives for the benefit of others. He checks Jim’s teeth utterly for his health, and throughout the story he unceasingly protects Jim. Ballard cleverly used the last name which has the same sound to the word “ransom”, which means to redeem from captivity by paying a demanded price. On the contrary, “Basie is a survivor, thought survivors can be dangerous. Wars exist for people like Basie,” as Basie is the selfish one who hunts the mouth of Jim for gold teeth to sell. Though one would morally disapprove of the actions of Basie, most of us could not deny the fact that during a war we would be just the same.
I also felt touched by the way Ballard used other symbols to remind us of the desperation of wartime life, such as the flies which I see as symbolizing the inescapable existence of war. In the beginning, Jim tried to brush away the flies, signifying his fighting back against the war. Eventually he gives up on keeping the flies away because there were too many, and he was helpless against them, which also implies him surrendering to the war.
Overall, Ballard’s novel is most special to me because unlike other war stories, the main character in “Empire of the Sun” is a fourteen year-old boy. Not many young adults can have such extraordinary confrontations and witness so much violence and suffering, let alone a child. He has probably aged a lot mentally throughout his years at the camp, learning to distrust and realize the dark inhuman nature within some adults, yet he learns that the best survival tactic is his own innocence and role as a child.