In the opening pages of Geling Yan's novel, The Flowers of War (Jingling Shisan Chai, translated from Chinese by Nicky Harmon) a young girl awakens in the middle of the night to discover her first menstrual period has arrived. She's torn between curiosity and disgust by it. Shujuan is one of more than a dozen girls left behind in Nanking as the Japanese invade the city. Most of the other girls are orphans, but Shujuan's family are in America. She feels utterly betrayed by her parents who have left her there alone when the other parents have already come for their daughters.
"Clearly her cowardly parents had not wanted to come back to a capital city abandoned even by the Chinese government."
The girls are in the care of two American missionaries who are unable to lead the girls into the city's Safety Zone, though they feel assured that the Japanese Army will act with honor once the city is secured. The girls hide in the attic of a Catholic Church protected by the elderly Father Engelmann and Deacon Fabio Adornato, an Italian-American who was raised in China and speaks nearly flawless Chinese. It's mostly through the eyes of Shujuan, not yet even fourteen, that the events of the story are played out. Feeling abandoned and confused, though mostly angry, Shujuan and the other girls are juxtaposed with a group of courtesans who have fled a nearby brothel to seek refuge in the church.
Both Fabio and Father Engelmann try to discourage the women from entering the grounds for fear they will put their young wards in danger, but the women disregard them and climb over the compound walls until the men have no choice but to allow them to shelter there as well. Some of the prostitutes are nearly the same age as the girls, but for ill luck they might have had the same chance for a safe and secure life with more hope and opportunities. They are, however, seen as interlopers by the girls. Already food and water are in scarce supply, and now the women with their flashy clothes, dissolute ways and seemingly voracious appetites hasten the depletion of what little they have creating tension and animosity between the two groups ending in a fight between the two.
"The Japanese were still abstract enemies, but this teenage prostitute was an enemy they could see."
For Shujuan the women repulse her but they also exude a certain fascination, particularly Zhao Yumo, who is the most elegant and beautiful of the group. Shujuan feels so many emotions like any girl of her age who is on the cusp of maturity, but she hates both the Japanese for cutting her off from her family and the prostitutes for reasons she likely doesn't even understand herself.
"She was overwhelmed with anguish, and hatred for everything and everyone. She even began to hate herself, now it turned out she had the same body and organs as those women downstairs, and the same cramping pains expelling the same unclean blood from her body."
Putting the already precarious neutrality of the church at risk, three Chinese soldiers beg entrance and help from the missionaries. Two have been injured in what turned out to be a massacre of POWs and a third, an office, managed to escape the carnage when a group of soldiers were fired upon by their own troops who thought the men were fleeing rather than understanding they had received the order to retreat. They, too, force their way in, which of course sets the story up for a somewhat disquieting climax.
This is a slim novel told in simple unadorned prose. Yan, to some extent, explores the lives and experiences of each group of individuals from the priests to the soldiers to the prostitutes. Some in more depth than others. I found the story surprisingly easy to read as I was expecting it to be both horrifying and harrowing considering the subject of the novel is the 1937 Rape of Nanking where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were murdered. There were certainly some disturbing scenes but none so horrendous as to make the story wholly demoralizing.
Therein lies a problem, as I feel slightly ambivalent about the book. Is it strange to say I "enjoyed" it on one level--particularly the moral dilemmas posed by such disparate groups of people thrown together in a time of war and who may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for others (perfect setting then to have the story take place in a church), yet I wonder if for all that it still feels a little more "slight" than I had anticipated for a story about such a horrific event? I'm not entirely sure and need to mull it over a bit more. It was made into a movie in 2011 (you can watch the trailer for it here), which I have not yet seen but plan to (it's already been requested from my library). It appears many changes to the story were made, but it looks visually striking, and perhaps the horrors of what occurred are more pronounced in the movie than they were in the book.
For all that, and despite a few reservations, I did very much like the book and am planning on reading more of Geling Yan's books. I've read far too few Chinese authors so look forward to exploring more of the culture and literature. You can read Caroline's thoughts (as well she'll link to more reviews) here. Next up for March is Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day. Bowen is an author I've read before and been impressed by, so I am happy to have an excuse to get back to her work.