Book review: The Flowers of War by Geling Yan

In 1937, two years before war broke out in Europe, hundreds of thousands of Chinese people died in one of the worst atrocities in their history.

The ‘Nanking Massacre’ has become synonymous with rampant brutality ... it is claimed Japanese soldiers ran amok in the ancient Chinese city, killing and raping, shoring up the roads with corpses and setting buildings alight.

This six-week reign of terror followed the Japanese capture of the city during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Historians and witnesses have estimated that up to 300,000 people were killed.

Geling Yan’s masterful novel, The Flowers of War, first published seven years ago and brought to the big screen in 2011 by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale, transports us back to the horrors of Nanking in a relatively short but poignant and subtle translation from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.

Using spare, beautifully understated prose, a rich cast of diverse characters and a plotline that crackles with simmering tensions, Geling Yan’s story has the power to shock, to inspire and to speak loudly about the triumph of humanity in human life’s darkest moments.

The action centres on a group of 16 terrified Chinese girls who are forced to hide in the compound of an American mission church next to their school after being unable to return to their homes and orphanages.

Among them is 13-year-old Shujuan and through her eyes we witness a series of devastating events unfolding. Run by Father Engelmann, an ageing and austere American priest and his young deacon Fabio Adornato, the church is supposedly neutral ground in the war between China and Japan.

But it becomes clear that the Japanese are not obeying international rules of engagement and as they pour through the streets of Nanking, raping and pillaging the civilian population, the girls are placed in increasing danger.

And their safety is further compromised when a ‘gaudy tidal wave’ of worldly, wisecracking prostitutes from the nearby brothel climbs over the wall into the compound seeking refuge and ‘a good death.’


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And more unwelcome guests soon arrive... three Chinese soldiers, two of them wounded, who have escaped a skirmish with the Japanese and whose presence puts the neutrality of the compound at risk.

With food and water in short supply, tensions at boiling point between the disparate groups and the Japanese invaders edging ever closer, compassion, resolve and shared understanding are the only weapons left...

The Flowers of War, so effective in its blunt reality and so moving in its sensitive depiction of the loss of innocence, is a lesson in how war upsets prejudice and how love and immense bravery can flourish amidst death.

A vivid and compelling novel that speaks to us all...


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(Vintage, paperback, £7.99)