Empire of the Sun has long been one of my favourite books, telling the story of Jim, a young boy held for years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. It was based on the author’s own wartime experiences, which explained how he could write so convincingly with a young boy’s voice.
For years I’ve put off reading this book, the sequel, because I didn’t want to risk changing my positive view of the first book and its author. Like Empire this book is fiction, but based on fact. It goes without saying that The Kindness of Women is exceptionally well written. The prose is powerful; the characters and scenes beautifully captured.
It turns out that I was right to be concerned. I found this a disturbing book with a number of characters that are hard to like. It overlaps the first in that it starts while Jim is still in the Japanese camp, but characters appear who weren’t mentioned in the first book and one very important event that seems central to Jim’s post-war life, isn’t mentioned in Empire.
Sex and death are the constant driving influences in Jim’s life, but there’s a lack of passion when dealing with either. We see, for example, his obsession with the female body he has to dissect at medical school and we have his efforts to become an RAF pilot, apparently driven by the wish to drop atom bombs on people. We do have an early identification of society’s impending obsession with the TV camera and a morbid fascination with car crashes.
For some reason with this book it’s much more important to me to know what is fact and what is fiction. To put my mind at rest I’m going to have to move straight on to Miracles of Life, Ballard’s autobiography published a few months before his death.
The book is available from Amazon The Kindness of Women