We gave it a B
On an August morning in 1945, 2,000 European detainees at the Lunghua prison camp outside Shanghai wake to discover that their Japanese guards have slipped away during the night. With the Second World War suddenly over, the prisoners are free to go, but for some of them — and in particular for a young English boy named Jim — freedom will be forever poisoned by the habit of pessimism and the fascination with cruelty acquired in the camp. Or, as Jim muses to himself years later as a medical student taking macabre pleasure in the dissection of a female corpse: ”In Shanghai, from 1937 to the dropping of the atom bombs, we had been neither combatants nor victims but spectators roped in to watch an execution. Those who had drawn too close had been touched by the blood on the guns.”
The Kindness of Women is the second installment of J.G. Ballard’s fictionalized autobiography, and a worthy — though sprawling and far less focused — sequel to Empire of the Sun (1984), which Steven Spielberg made into a 1987 movie. In a series of discrete episodes that span almost 50 years, Ballard takes his alter ego from plucky boyhood through anxious, death- obsessed early manhood and finally to cathartic middle age, when at long last he’s ”wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.”
As the title suggests, Jim’s (and, we assume, Ballard’s) history takes much of its structure and nearly all of its comfort from the women he loves and who, each in her own way, love him in return: the sisterly prison-camp confidant who becomes, in later life, his hectoring conscience; the bright schoolgirl he marries, whose warmth, wit, and slightly sinister eroticism all but obliterate his memories of Shanghai’s ”dusty dead” — till her own sudden death brings them all rushing back; the cheerful neighbor who seduces him after 11 months of celibacy (”Heavens, you’re tense deep breaths now”); and the reckless American hippie, ”fuelled by amphetamines,” who guides him across ”the volatile landscape” of the mid-’60s — an era that comes in for some heavy bashing here.
With its ”brutalizing newsreels of civil wars and assassinations, the stylisation of televised violence into an anthology of design statements,” and its ”pornography of science that took its materials, not from nature, but from the deviant curiosity of the scientist,” the decade of the ’60s — as Ballard remembers it and Jim narrates it — is depicted as a time of psychic damage on a grand scale. Another kind of prison camp. Which probably explains why the novel’s final section, chronicling Jim’s life during the 1970s and ’80s, is called ”After the War.”
Although some of the later episodes drag badly and the writing lacks the idiomatic snap and glitter of Ballard’s best work, The Kindness of Women is an intense and moving story of casualty and recovery. B