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The Flowers of War by Geling Yan

The Flowers of War (2012)

by Geling Yan

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This novel, the February pick for the War & Literature Read-Along, is set in 1937-38 Nanking, China during the beginning of the occupation by the Imperial Japanese army at the start of the second Sino-Japanese war. The period beginning mid-December 1937 has become known as “the Rape of Nanking“, for what seems to be very good reason.

The priest at a church ‘compound’ has had thrust upon him the care of twelve young students from an all-girls school, whose parents for various reasons, have not been able to collect them. Shortly after the arrival of the schoolgirls, several prostitutes from a neighbouring brothel scale the compound walls, and a small group of wounded Chinese soldiers take refuge there as well, setting the scene for the novel’s tragic climax.

The prose in this book is simple and straight-forward; so simple, in fact, that at times I thought perhaps this was a Young Adult book. But on consideration, I believe that it is the effect of the original Chinese language, and the translation.

Even though it may not appear to be at first, Flowers of War is an extremely powerful book about the horrors of war and the sacrifices of ordinary men and women. Warning: The last chapter is very graphic, although not gratuitously so, and describes savagery you will not soon forget. 4½ stars

Read this if: you want to find out about the war between China & Japan that preceded WWII, and is now forgotten by the majority of North Americans. ( )
  ParadisePorch | Mar 20, 2013 |
This is the third novel I've read by this hugely imaginative author. It's full of the same sorts of quirks and diversions as her other works, but is also the most emotionally satisfying. The story of schoolgirls, prostitutes, soldiers and priests taking refuge in a church during the brutal rape of Nanjing in 1937, it offers a suspense-filled, insightful look into what feels like very believable bickering and competition among these mismatched cohabitators, united by fear and the will to survive.

I confess that I saw the movie first, which bears only superficial resemblance to the novel, even though the author co-wrote the screenplay. While the movie is in many ways a better actual story than the novel, the characters in the book were given more depth. I also preferred the priests as saviors in the book, over the improbably handsome, rakish foreign mortician in the movie (though Christian Bale played the role superbly). Plus the book has the added attraction of an epilogue, which tells the fates of several characters.

If you liked the movie, read this short book. If you liked the book, see the movie. Both are excellent. ( )
  Feign | Feb 19, 2013 |
A little disappointing.

This was a book that improved a bit as the story progressed - initially I couldn't relax with the dialogue or the points of view of the protaganists, which felt disjointed. I wondered if it was a translation problem, but the translator is very experienced in this field, so I concluded that it must be cultural.
As I relaxed into the style, I became more involved with the schoolgirls in their innocence, the brazen prostitutes and the injured soldiers, all thrown together under the care of the church and Father Engelmann. The Father, with the help of his Deacon, Fabio Adornato, do their best to help everyone but they were in this over their heads, as water and food quickly ran out.

There is mention of the city burning all around but I didn't feel the sense of urgency and panic that this must surely have evoked. There is the smell of burning, but where is the fear that the flames could reach and envelop the church, its buildings and survivors?
The story takes place during the Massacre of Nanking in 1937 and the massacre itself is well described as 5,000 Chinese soldiers unfortunately put their faith in the Japanese to respect their rights as prisoners of war.

It is only a short book with 250 widely spaced pages and I learnt about an historical event that I had not been previously aware of, but I was disappointed that there seemed to be less feeling than I would have expected for a catastrophe of this nature.
Worth a read but not highly recommended. ( )
  DubaiReader | Feb 26, 2012 |
A more personal yet no less powerful take on the Nanking invasion by the Chinese. School girls, prostitutes, injured Chinese soldiers all come under the protection of an American priest in a church that is supposed to be off limits because of it's American status. The book takes place almost solely within this church and visits by the priest to what is supposed to be the safety zone. The way people change when confronted with adversity, among untold violence, are avidly portrayed in this novel. Sacrifices are made, others learn gratitude and by the end of this book I literally had goosebumps. The epilogue ties it all together and we learn where these people are 9 years later and how some of them had changed. The translation made the book seem distant in the first half or so, but by the end it was a book that delivered a big impact. Historical fiction readers find this book informative. ARC provided by Net Galley. ( )
  Beamis12 | Jan 16, 2012 |
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It is December 1937 and the Japanese Imperial Army has just entered Nanking. Unable to reach the Safety Zone in Pokou, a group of schoolgirls are hiding out in the compound of the St. Mary Magdalene mission. They are looked after by Father Engelmann, an American priest who has made China his home for many years. The church is supposed to be neutral ground in the war between China and Japan, but eyewitness reports from the outside make it clear the Japanese are not obeying the international rules of engagement. As the soldiers pour through the streets of Nanking, committing unspeakable atrocities on civilians, thirteen Chinese courtesans from a nearby brothel climb over the church compound's walls seeking refuge. Their presence further jeopardizes the children's safety and what happens next will change all of their lives.

A haunting, passionate story inspired by true life events during the Nanking Massacre, this novel shows how war challenges our prejudices and that love can flourish amidst death and destruction. The Flowers of War is an unforgettable journey through the depths of the human heart.
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This moving short novel is based on true events that took place during the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 when the Japanese invaded the Chinese city, slaughtering not only soldiers but raping and murdering the civilian population as well.

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