Then all the girls crowded round the thrashing forms on the floor, aiding their friends by landing a kick or a pinch where they could. The Japanese were still abstract enemies, but this teenage prostitute was an enemy they could see.
(from The Flowers of War, page 60)
The Flowers of War by Geling Yan, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman, is set in December 1937 during the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking, which occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War (which became part of the Pacific theater of World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor). It focuses on an American church where a group of 16 schoolgirls is being hidden while the Japanese, disregarding the rules of war, slaughter Chinese POWs and civilians and rape women and children as they take over the city.
The invasion means there is little food or water in the church to go around — and even less when a group of 13 prostitutes climbs over the wall in search of shelter and protection from the uncontrollable Japanese soldiers. The situation grows even more dire when wounded Chinese soldiers arrive at the church’s gate, with the Japanese not far behind.
Most of The Flowers of War is seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shujuan, who, unlike most of her classmates, is not an orphan. However, with her family in America, she is unable to escape before the city is captured and feels abandoned. She is very curious and brave (or foolish, depending on how you look at it), refusing to hide in the upstairs room when all the action is happening in the courtyard or in the basement, and much of what readers see and hear of the soldiers and the prostitutes comes from her spying. Shujuan is quick to judge the prostitutes, some of whom are around her age, believing them to be undeserving of the church’s help and resenting the extra food they procure from the male cook. However, she soon realizes there is more to these women than their profession, and on many levels, she is like them.
Despite being such a short book (only 248 pages), Yan has created some fairly well developed characters. From Shujuan to Yumo, the leader of the group of prostitutes whose sophistication and background make one question how she ended up in a brothel, from Deacon Fabio, an Italian-American raised by a Chinese woman after his parents’ death who doesn’t feel like he belongs to either culture, to Father Engelmann, whose caring nature conflicts with the church’s neutrality and forces him to make a decision that will haunt the church’s inhabitants forever — readers learn enough about them to care what happens next.
The Flowers of War is a surprisingly powerful novel about a city gone to hell, rape as a weapon of war, and women as second-class citizens. The book isn’t overly graphic, and except for the final chapters, it’s not as heavy as you would think given the subject matter. But I was so disturbed by the ending that I couldn’t sleep and stayed up way past my bedtime reading something else to calm my mind, not necessarily because of the writing (the prose was rather plain) but because of what it forced me to think about. I knew very little about what happened in Nanking before reading this book, so it’s a worthwhile read for raising awareness of a heartbreaking historical event. Just be prepared to feel everything from fear to anger to helplessness to sadness.
I read The Flowers of War for the Literature and War Readalong on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Click here to read and/or join the discussion.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Flowers of War from the local library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.