Literary Postmortem: The Flowers of War

No one ever thinks of war with an air of pleasantry, but I must admit I never stretch my imaginings of the true horrors far enough – a realization that came to me quite early on reading this book.

Everything I assumed would happen never did and every single climatic moment in the novel came as a shock, often accompanied by tears. It was a heart wrenching read. I suspect that it is why it took me so long to read (about five months I think).

It isn’t a long read at all and it’s beautifully written, with a flow that hooked one instantly, but I could only deal with it in small chunks at a time. A way to apportion the pain I think. It was astounding to me how inhumane people became with the power of gunfire in their hands and a band of cowards behind them, cheering their brutish behavior on.

The novel written by Geling Yan is set in China in 1937, during their occupation by the commanding island that is Japan. The novel is set a few months after the Second Sino-Japanese War started – a war that lasted almost ten years. Although the novel is a brief glimpse into a short time during the war, I loved how Yan mixed fiction and history – simultaneously educating and entertaining me.

Yan focuses on a singular location in the novel, an American church in Nanking which is housing a number of orphaned teenage school girls who had not managed to escape the country in time. Throughout the entire book I was under the false illusion that because of where they were the girls would be safe. But chapter by chapter, as the Japanese soldiers’ stomped their way through the pages, that hope waned. I soon realised that these girls couldn’t possibly evade the Nanking Massacre that was happening around them.

Things got all the more dangerous for the girls when a group of prostitutes and wounded Chinese soldiers turn to the church for refuge. What follows are scenes I have had bad dreams about for the past few nights. I recall one particularly grisly chapter set at an execution ground. Shucks, I was never ready for that chapter.

Every death was a blow, as it should be. It’s so easy these days to shrug off death at the hands of violence because “we know it happens” or it’s just all around all the time. But it shouldn’t be like that. It’s not normal to live in a perpetual state of continued violence. I think what this novel taught me was that yes war time is horrible, but it made me realise that maybe wars don’t really end. Yes soldiers leave and there are treaties signed and what not but people don’t necessarily stop living in horrible conditions without the threat of rape and murder. But I digress.

On the positive side this was the second book I have read about women in war and again I was shown what resilient beings we can be. The women in this book were very inspiring, they were “naturally” the most vulnerable people throughout the novel but somehow they survived it and not by chance either.

Anyway this is one I would definitely recommend, for both your intellectual and social edification.

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