Review: The Flowers Of War

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February 13, 2012 by markstani

This book was provided via Booktrust, whose translated fiction website is here.

Its big-screen adaptation starring Christian Bale might be one of the richest films in Chinese history but anyone expecting Geling Yan’s The Flowers Of War (pub. Harvill Secker) to contain a healthy dose of Hollywood schmaltz should look away now.
Set at the start of the siege of Nanking in December 1937, ‘The Flowers Of War’ tells the story of a group of schoolgirls forced to take refuge in the attic of an American church while the advancing Japanese soldiers rape and massacre outside its walls.
The girls’ safety is further compromised by the arrival of a band of gaudy prostitutes from a nearby brothel who are seeking shelter.

Long after the prostitutes had gone back to their lair and her classmates to their attic, Shujuan sat despondently in the kitchen. Her outburst had left her drained, but her head still whirled with the exquisitely wounding insults she could have heaped on the women. She hated herself for not having taken the chance. She could hear the women chatting and teasing each other in the cellar below. They were obviously used to indulging in provocative banter with their male clients; they simply carried on in the same vein when there were no men around.
As she sat there in the gloom, Shujuan listened to the continuous rattle of gunfire. The damned Japs had fought their way into Nanking, cutting her off from her grandparents, made her parents too afraid to come back to China, and let a bunch of whores invade Nanking’s ‘last island of green’. She was overwhelmed with anguish, and hatred for everything and everyone. She even began to hate herself, now it turned out she had the same body and organs as those women downstairs, and the same cramping pains expelling the same unclean blood from her body.

Fighting an increasingly forlorn battle to keep his church safe, and with the schoolgirls and prostitutes regarding each other with contempt, the ageing priest, Father Engelmann, is forced to confront issues of faith and prejudice.
If the central theme of the novel is that relationship between the sheltered schoolgirls and the colourful prostitutes, ‘The Flowers Of War’ is far removed from the Spielberg-esque cliché of wartime redemption.
Yan is unafraid to portray in graphic detail both the lewd, crude behaviour of the girls and the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese soldiers. Just 250 pages long,
‘The Flowers Of War’ is a masterpiece of focus and brevity: and certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

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