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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Flowers of War

Yan Geling

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Flowers of War

Title: The Flowers of War
Author: Yan Geling
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Flowers of War - US
The Flowers of War - UK
The Flowers of War - Canada
The Flowers of War - India
I fiori della guerra - Italia
Las flores de la guerra - España
  • Chinese title: 金陵十三钗
  • Translated by Nicky Harman
  • The Flowers of War was made into a movie in 2011, ditrected by Yimou Zhang and starring Christian Bale and Ni Ni

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Our Assessment:

(--) : frustrating odd mix of a book

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 20/1/2012 Isabel Hilton
The Independent . 20/1/2012 Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Flowers of War, ably translated by Nicky Harman, tells the story of a group of Christian schoolgirls hidden in the attic of a school. They are joined by a group of prostitutes, who settle, symbolically and literally, in the cellar. The novel is rewarding for its spare prose and subtle treatment of the conflicts, quarrels, racial ambiguities and acts of transcendent heroism woven into the story. It is unsparing in its account of the horrors of War and returns to a theme also found in other treatments: the enforced choice to sacrifice a few to spare the greater number." - Isabel Hilton, The Guardian

  • "Yan's novel is more nuanced. Shujuan, one of the schoolgirls, forms the moral arc of the story. Trapped in the church, she is furious at the changes in her body, at the war raging outside and, above all, at the prostitutes whom she views with disgust. Yan masterfully depicts these bubbling tensions." - Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Independent

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Flowers of War is a frustrating would-be novel -- and, yes, the fact that it's not-quite-a-novel is one of the frustrating aspects of it. Set during the Nanking Massacre that started in December, 1937, most of the action takes place in the compound of the St.Mary Magdalene mission, which is outside the (not so safe) Safe Zone. The American priest in charge, Father Engelmann, and a small staff are keeping watch over the sixteen schoolgirls who couldn't be evacuated yet and remain, but matters are complicated when the gals from the local bordello scale the walls and settle in here too. They are not welcome guests, but there's little to be done; the whores move into the cellar, while the girls are hidden away in the attic -- a real upstairs-downstairs. And the prostitutes are not the only outsiders who seek sanctuary and protection here.
       As they all eventually realize:

They had imagined this was a secret corner that the war had, by some lucky fluke, overlooked. But the arrival of the Japanese soldiers this evening had disabused them of that idea. Three hundred thousand soldiers had seeped into every corner of Nanking, every alleyway, every home, and every nook and cranny.
       There's some token disbelief at what's going on all around, as when the priest wonders:
     "Are the Japanese really flouting international rules on the treatment of prisoners of war?" he said to Fabio. "That's an affront to all civilised, humane values. Can you believe it ? Are these really the same Japanese people I know ?"
       But since this is historically-based fiction, and since the Nanking Massacre is well-known as an example of people at their absolute worst, and since these events were also called the 'Rape of Nanking', well, it's pretty clear where this is all headed. There are a few moments of hope -- one girl's dad actually manages to get to her and bring her out of the danger zone (and she even gets to take some friends along) -- but on the whole the question is just: how badly will this turn out ? And given the fact that a blockbuster movie was made out of this -- apparently the most expensive Chinese production to date (and starring ... Christian Bale ?) -- it's also pretty clear exactly how things will play out -- i.e. in best Hollywood style. (The tale is: "Inspired by true events", but it's not clear how closely -- and it's unfortunate that Yan didn't take advantage of the possibilities of fiction to offer a more realistic, less comfortable ending.)
       The Flowers of War is a screenplay-novelization (before the fact): this isn't a real novel, this is a prose version of the movie. Yan offers movie-scenes, and little depth; there are many characters and stories here, but she barely does more than skim the surface of any of these.
       Yan starts off promisingly enough, young Shujuan waking in the night as she gets her period for the first time, and there are few decent beginnings of scenes focused on Shujuan, as she still childishly makes up and breaks with a friend there or pouts that:
The damned Japs had fought their way into Nanking, cut her off from her grandparents, made her parents too afraid to come back to China, and let a bunch of whores invade Nanking's 'last island of green'.
       But this isn't really Shujuan's story, as the focus shifts to various other characters -- the priest, the cook, the other girls, the whores, Chinese soldiers, etc. etc. Far too much for such a short novel -- while at the same time there's far too little foundation to so much of it, from character-depictions to much of how everyday life functioned at the compound (Yan offers a few details -- such as early on when the question arises what the prostitutes will use as a toilet -- but then doesn't bother with too many others). There are some powerful shocking scenes, and some heartwarming ones of lonely characters seeing in others something that they have long missed, but these, too, are all movie-scenes, and the cuts away from them, as well as the way these different things are tidied up ultimately all seems little more than shallow and sensationalistic.
       A somewhat stilted style -- and translation: "Making up with her friend after a tiff was the sweetest feeling" -- doesn't help matters either.
       Novels so closely based on very ugly history are difficult to criticize in any neutral way. What Yan describes is, more or less, realistic -- even as much of what happens is beyond any pale. Matters are further complicated by the focus on this particular, very black and white historic event (where there's no question whatsoever as to who is right and good, and who is immoral and evil): like novels of Nazi concentration camps, one might argue that there is no need to explore the minds of the depraved ones who are responsible for all this horror -- yet in depicting the Japanese here just as (brutal) actors -- simply pure evil -- there is a hollowness to the whole story too. Nothing can excuse the behavior of the Japanese in Nanking in 1937, in fact or here in fiction, but surely some effort must be made to present where they're coming from, so to speak. Yan doesn't, and left as is, The Flowers of War's lessons and morals are on a horror flick/comic book level. As is much of the presentation .....
       Yan does do a nice job of presenting the selfishness -- and inability to see the larger picture -- of the female characters for much of the story (until, eventually, it hits them just what a lousy situation they find themselves in). Even their infighting is not presented in a particularly nuanced way -- and again, far too much is just surface movie-scenes -- but it's a realistic element that adds a bit of texture to the novel.
       Arguably, The Flowers of War is a successful YA novel, with young teen girls able to identify with the endangered schoolgirls and perhaps more willing to put up with writing that falls short of fully-formed fiction. (Teens presumably are also far less likely to know about the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, so it can function as a bit of a history lesson as well.) The conclusion, too, is the heavy but happy end that they could take some comfort in; on the other hand, the brutality is a lot for any teen to take.
       While other mature readers may be more forgiving of Yan's moving but ultimately simplistic and way too easy (on herself, on her characters (well, most of them ...), and on the reader) story-arc -- I wouldn't have been nearly as annoyed if she had ended things entirely differently -- it's hard to overlook the fact that as a piece of fiction it is an aggravating piece of work. All the more frustratingly so because Yan shows enough talent, here and there; she just doesn't put it together -- and she leaves far too much out in this barely-scratching-any-surface story.
       Tightened up, it could have been a successful short story; filled up it could have been a decent novel; as is, it's nothing more than a screenplay novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 January 2012

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The Flowers of War: Reviews: The Flowers of War - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese-born author Yan Geling (严歌苓) was born in 1958. She writes in both Chinese and English.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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