Empire of the Sun is a novel, which portrays the Japanese occupation of mainland China during the Second World War. It was first published in 1984, and was written by the author J.G Ballard. Ballard presents his first-hand account of events during the war through the eyes of the fictional character, James (Jim) Graham, a twelve-year-old boy. Although Empire of the Sun is presented as a novel, the reader could easily associate the story with two different genre. Not only is it an autobiographical account of events, it is also a story of the ‘coming of age ‘ of a young child.
There are several main characters in this novel. Jim is the character whose experiences through 1941 to 1945 arguably form the general plot. Due to the separation of Jim and his parents, he is whirled into a harsh, unforgiving environment. If Jim is to survive the hostility that all but engulfs him, he must rapidly evolve to that of a mature, aware character. This transformation in Jim, from being a young, ignorant child, who idolises the Japanese pilots, is a remarkable feature in his character. As Jim’s personality evolves, his relationship with others does also.
A second character, Basie, is an American merchant caught in the conflict and imprisoned along with Jim, among others, in Lunghua Camp. Basie is a cunning, manipulative character, who manages to grasp control over the young, ignorant Jim. Even as Jim’s own character develops, he has formed such a strong bond with Basie, albeit a largely superficial one, that he cannot manage to separate himself from Basie’s dominating influence.
The final key character is the doctor at Lunghua Camp, Dr. Ransom. Ransom is, like Basie, a character who establishes a relationship with Jim at a young age. They meet as they are being transferred from a detention facility to Lunghua Camp. Jim and the reader are initially unsure of Dr. Ransom and his personality. Jim feels that he portrays great ambiguity in the way he expresses himself. This attitude towards the doctor gradually disappears as one reads on. Ransom becomes a somewhat fatherly figure to Jim, educating him inside the prison, and taking responsibility for Jim’s actions and his well-being. Examples of this fatherly position range from when he sacrifices his own health to promote Jim’s rapid development and growth, to when he gives Jim Latin homework so that he does not fall behind with his education.
The plot follows Jim's battle for survival in China during the Second World War. Jim is separated from his parents early on in the story, meaning that he has to face an uphill struggle alone. Through Jim’s determination to be reunited with his family, he experiences events of a horrific magnitude. Jim forces himself through Japanese imprisonment, physical punishment and even starvation.
Ballard excells in describing how a young boy could develop so hastily when it is crucial to his survival. Jim’s confinement from the world leads to this ultimate development. Ballard uses his own experiences as a setting for this blossoming of maturity. The author’s style of writing also allows the reader to capture the change in emotions and attitudes shown by the characters as they develop throughout the novel.
The author’s brave attempt at presenting his personal account of events to the reader made this autobiographical novel so interesting and enjoyable to read. Ballard has allowed us to establish the horrific reality of events and atrocities that took place at the time. The story becomes extremely personal when a young boy is faced with the steep challenge of survival in a violence-ridden environment. For these reasons I would recommend this novel to any reader who wishes to gain a first-hand account of events in China during the Second World War. I give this book 5 stars out of 5, and in my opinion, it has gained every single one.