"Empire of the Sun" by J.G. Ballard (1984)
"Sergeant Uchida cuffed Jim on the head, bruising both his ears. He cuffed him again, bringing blood from his mouth. At that moment a cloud of smoke billowed through the gates. The Annamese women had lit the stove with the rain-soaked firewood, and the smoke filled the open-air cinema, drifting across the benches as if the screen were ablaze."
"Empire of the Sun" is J.G. Ballard's most famous novel. It describes the ordeals of Jim, a young British boy resident in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The book begins with a portrayal of China on the eve of the Second World War, and from there follows Jim as the war separates him from his parents.
Compared to "Crash," the only other J.G. Ballard book that I've read, this book is much darker in tone, and the author's personal experiences in an internment camp lend the novel a gravity that "Crash" doesn't have. It is a somber, brooding book about the human will to survive and the short-sighted nature of human kindness.
Steven Spielberg also made a movie about it, but the movie is far more upbeat than the book. This makes sense because Spielberg was making a movie for a much wider audience, whereas Ballard could afford to be both more personal and more selective. I don't grudge Spielberg for watering down this story, because a more faithful adaptation would have been very grim indeed.
Residents of Taiwan and China will find a lot of historical interest in "Empire of the Sun." In writing this book Ballard was reliving many childhood experiences, and his accounts of the Japanese, the British, and the Chinese Kuomintang forces are very compelling. The power struggles outlined in this book continue to shape Asia today, and as far as historical import goes I would rank this book alongside Edgar Snow's "Red Star Over China."
All in all I would describe "Empire of the Sun" as a good book, although it is extremely depressing. If you're looking for light reading you'll want to avoid this one at all costs, but if you're looking for something deeper you'll enjoy it.