Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)
J. G. Ballard’s tale of survival is unique among World War II reminiscences, although there are several parallel tales. Jim is slightly younger than Anne Frank was during the war, witnessed a catastrophe as severe as the firebombing of Dresden, and takes actions similar to those found in the memoirs of Holocaust survivors. Perhaps the most apt parallel, however, is to Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), a fictionalized tale with enough verisimilitude to seem autobiographical. If Empire of the Sun is regarded as a work of general literature, Ballard’s perspective on war and wartime is perhaps most similar to Heller’s in Catch-22 (1961).
The brilliance of Ballard’s work is that he filters young Jim’s perspective through his adult sensibility without either talking down to the reader or losing Jim’s attitude. As Jim’s attitudes change—from his early realization “that kindness, which parents and teachers had always urged upon him, counted for nothing” to Dr. Ransome’s telling him “you’ll never believe the war is over”—his actions are consistent.
Additionally, this book may have revealed the origins of some of the recurring imagery in Ballard’s works, such as low-flying planes and an empty swimming pool. As an aid to understanding Ballard and his works, this book is invaluable. It is not necessary to read Ballard’s other works, however, to marvel at the depth and range of Jim’s journey in a fictionalized wartime memoir that ranks with the most memorable of all time.