I read this many years ago but found it just as compulsive the second time around …in fact knowing the broad outline of the story, I could concentrate more on the writing and thus had a more in-depth appreciation of the descriptions. And the brutal treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese was still just as shocking, as was the uncaring attitudes of the colonial British .
At times the disjointed and episodic nature of the account was irritating especially at the end, where it’s not clear at what points Jim is hallucinating through lack of food and water and so his grasp on reality is very tenuous.
The characters in the book, e g the unscrupulous Basie, the caring and careworn Dr Ransome are well drawn, as is the hyperactive, self-absorbed and complex character of Jim himself. To what extent is he knowing, or naïve? How much have all the deaths and horrors he has seen both before the war and then during it, desensitised him? He recounts scenes of the utmost brutality in a detailed yet curiously uninvolved way, and perhaps like the reader, many in the book find it difficult to come to terms with his obvious fascination with ‘the empire of the sun’ and its pilots.
Although it was a fictionalised account, Ballard had actually been incarcerated in Lunghua camp as a young boy so much of the book was based on real experience. The interviews at the back of the book giving the real background to Ballard’s war are, in some ways, as fascinating and revealing as the book itself.
So although this was at times an infuriating book, it was also gripping, informative, and compelling.