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Empire of the Sun

Narrated by: Steven Pacey
Length: 11 hrs and 31 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (413 ratings)

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Summary

Winner of the Guardian fiction prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

From the master of dystopia, comes his heartrending story of a British boy’s four-year ordeal in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. Based on J. G. Ballard’s own childhood, this is the extraordinary account of a boy’s life in Japanese-occupied wartime Shanghai - a mesmerising, hypnotically compelling novel of war, of starvation and survival, of internment camps and death marches. It blends searing honesty with an almost hallucinatory vision of a world thrown utterly out of joint. Rooted as it is in the author’s own disturbing experience of war in our time, it is one of a handful of novels by which the 20th century will be not only remembered but judged.

J. G. Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai, where his father was a businessman. After internment in a civilian prison camp, he and his family returned to England in 1946. He published his first novel, The Drowned World, in 1961. His 1984 best seller, Empire of the Sun, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was later filmed by Steven Spielberg. His memoir Miracles of Life was published in 2008. J. G. Ballard died in 2009.

©1984 J. G. Ballard (P)2014 Audible Studios

Critic reviews

“An extraordinary achievement” (Angela Carter)
“A remarkable journey into the mind of a growing boy … horror and humanity are blended into a unique and unforgettable fiction” ( Sunday Times)
“Remarkable … form, content and style fuse with complete success … one of the great war novels of the 20th century” (William Boyd)
“Gripping and remarkable … I have never read a novel which gave me a stronger sense of the blind helplessness of war … unforgettable” ( Observer)
“A brilliant fusion of history, autobiography and imaginative speculation. An incredible literary achievement and almost intolerably moving” (Anthony Burgess)
“An immensely powerful novel – in a class of its own for sheer imaginative force.” ( Daily Telegraph)
“Gripping and remarkable … I have never read a novel which gave me a stronger sense of the blind helplessness of war … unforgettable.” ( Observer)
“Ranks with the greatest British writing on the Second World War.” ( The Times)

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Fantastic performance.

A brilliant book that takes you on a ( sometimes harrowing) journey through China during ww2.
My own knowledge of the war was somewhat Eurocentric, this book has widened my perspective particularly in relation to Japanese Pow's and their experiences. When you hear people say, oh he never really 'came back' from the Japanese camps, ' he/ she was never the same after' this book gives us detailed insight into why this is so often the case.
Narration is absolutely spot on, it would have been spoiled by 'sentimental'reading which would have been an easy trap to fall into.
As it's written from a child's perspective it is matter of fact despite the traumatic experiences.
The sort of book ideal for long drives as you can drift in and out of the story and don't need to be constantly focussed!


10 people found this helpful

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Stark and vivid.

This was not as I had expected - and not my usual choice. It is a stark and very vivid story of war time experience from a child's point of view. The narrator enhances the story to give the reader an insight into the cold and resigned emotions that develop within the child - without sensationalism or over dramatisation. Very moving and quite disturbing in parts. I would recommend this book for the quality and strength of the writing.

14 people found this helpful

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Outstanding

One of the best audiobooks I have purchased recently. Gave a very realistic description of what is must have been like in the Far East at the end of the Second World War.

5 people found this helpful

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Heart rending

I was not sure what to expect from this book. I have read other Jg Ballard novels and enjoyed them, but this is different, being based on his own experience during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in WW2. The narration is excellent, bringing life and individuality to each of the characters and expressing both Jim's youthful naivety and the protracted suffering the internees endured. Towards the end of the book I was often in tears as Jim fought to survive and make sense of his world. The reader expertly conveys Jim's fragile mental state after years of depravation and seeing so many people die. The poignant ending sees Jim return to his childhood home in the city and then embark on a journey into an uncertain future, I thoroughly recommend this book.

15 people found this helpful

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Beautifully Written

I must have been living under a rock or something as I have only recently
heard of this book although I now understand it's a classic. I picked up
this on sale on a two for one offer as I was not quite sure about it but
felt I ought to give it a listen as it was a story based during World War
II and told from the perspective of a child caught up at the start of the
war with Japan which is a subject of interest to me.

The sample piqued my curiosity and so read this book I did. The first thing
I noticed about this story was the writing style. It certainly felt like a
story written in a more classical type of prose that made frequent use of
metaphor. This rich style of writing was highly evocative and really painted
a vivid picture of the world in which we find young Jim thrown into. The
first part of the story that sees Jim losing his parents in the confusion of
war and following him on his journeys in search of them is brilliantly done.

The middle portion of the story sees Jim held in an interment camp and for
me the narrative waned a little here meandering somewhat although still
interesting. The final part of the story sees Jim on his travels again and
here once more Ballard paints a rich world for the reader to see in their
mind's eye.

One thing I would say is it is probably worth avoiding snacking while
listening to this as I was on several occasions put off my food with the
multiple references to all forms of human waste as well as lurid
descriptions of dead bodies.

The overall story is interesting but I did find it odd how a lone child was
so ignored and even treated badly by adults in the camps. I imagined that
this would not be realistic but then again, perhaps it was. Just seemed a
very harsh and uncaring environment with some adults only wanting to use the
child. Jim's naivety is shocking at times but it's probably a product of his
upbringing into a privileged world in addition to the time period. This
naivety protects Jim's mind from the horrors of war insulating him to the
extent that death in all its forms seems to hold little fear or revulsion for
him. On the flip side this naivety places his person in jeopardy at times
too.

I did come across one or two inconsistencies in the narrative though. One
example was when characters are referenced in the stadium and subsequently
Jim muses as to whether they died on the way to that stadium.

Steven Pacey does an excellent job of the narration and his classically
British sounding voice matches the tone and time period of this tale
perfectly.

Overall this book tells the brutal story of how the Japanese treated their
prisoners during the war and spares the reader little of the inhumane
conditions endured by the inmates. It also shines a light on the way people
behave under such circumstances.

Empire of The Sun is a powerful read that can be depressing, shocking, sad,
funny and brutal as well as seeming a little surreal at times given Jim's
innocence and how he sees the world.

1 person found this helpful

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Heavy going

This is probably the first book narayed by Stephen pacey I didn't enjoy.
His narrative was superb but content was so heavy that I struggled to get through the book.
Back to the first law for me where Pacey really shines!!

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Japanese prisoner of war through a child's eyes

I have not seen the film, but highly recommend the book/ audible.

WW2 books usually centre around Europe and we can often forget about VJ Day and what surrounded and lead to it.

The book is a grim, no messing tale of young Jim and his parents living in Shangai prior to the war breaking out. The outbreak of war and his subsequent internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It focuses on his time there, the horrors of daily life and also the small things that kept them going. With VJ Day sees Jim returning to shanghai, reuniting with his parents.

The last three hours are very sad and graphic in Jims dwindling mental state but intrinsic to this great story.

1 person found this helpful

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Stunning

Superb story extremely well told. Brings home the horrors if war . Steve Pacey reads well.

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Superb and quite unlike the film

The theme of this book is similar to that of Lord of the Flies, but this is far, far more interesting: the vision of human nature is more nuanced, and the outcome is more pregnant with possibilities. The film is a childish version of the book - as though the central character has been washed clean with the Wordsworthian innocence to which Spielberg is committed. It’s a brilliant book and an excellent reading.

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An overrated novel

I expected a classic written by a master craftsman but instead I found myself listening to the work of a mediocre journeyman. The key problem with the novel is that the central character, Jim, is a kludge of two contradictory characters. One is a high-IQ fourteen-year-old who can (correctly) calculate the speed of Superfortress bombers on their bombing run by using his own heartbeat as a timer; the other is a dull, impressionable child who constantly asks adults silly questions and who believes that the excessive shine on his shoes may have caused American fighter-bombers to attack a nearby Japanese airfield. I could give many more examples of this contradiction.

The moral viewpoint that underpins the novel is questionable. Ballard treats us to several explicit descriptions of European prisoners pooping and urinating in conditions of abject squalor. Perhaps this focus upon squalor is meant to emphasise the justified demise of nasty European imperialists. If that is the case then this message is totally undermined by the brutality with which the Japanese treat their fellow East-Asians, the Chinese. In one of these incidents four Japanese soldiers amuse themselves by beating a Chinese peasant to death. Maybe Ballard planned a sequel in which the justified demise of the Japanese was to be emphasised by graphic descriptions of them pooping.

Ballard’s prose occasionally lapses into incoherence. For example, towards the close of the novel Jim, referring to Mrs Vincent, says “Mrs Vincent would build a strange runway.” I’m still trying to understand how that sentence got past the editor.

One bright spot: Steven Pacy’s narration is excellent.

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  • Penelope
  • 21-07-15

Quietly absorbing

Quite unlike anything I've read or listened to before. The characterisation is brilliant. Thematically powerful in an understated way. The tone of the narrator is ideally suited to the text.