” The fact was that the prostitutes exerted a strange fascinations over all the girls. Just thinking about the business they did with that secret place between their legs give them a little spasm in their own bodies, which they conceal by blushing and exclaiming: ‘Ai-ya!’ There was nothing more seductive than sin and they took a vicarious delight in the fact that these women did bad things which they hardly dared contemplate. ” (Ch.3, p.34)
Set during the Nanking Massacre, when Japanese forces disobey international rules of engagement and killed over three hundred thousands people in December 1937, The Flowers of War is a fictionalized account of a group of terrified schoolgirls who finds safety in the compound of an American church. St. Mary Magdalene, headed by Father Engelmann, is regarded as neutral territory during the Sino-Japanese War. A day after the schoolgirls are taken in, a group of prostitutes from the nearby brothel clambers over the wall demanding shelter. Soon the teenaged girls from privileged background bicker and pick fight with the prostitutes, whom they despise and label second-rate people. To aggravate the matter at the church, where water and provision are meager, two badly injured Chinese soldiers insinuate the backyard of the church. They have survived a mass execution out of sheer luck. When Father Engelmann tries to turn all these refugees away and relents, hey all come to live under the same roof.
Fatigue, hunger, and despair had sapped his energy to such an extent that he might not have the reserves of strength to say and do what he had to. He was going to have to be cruel and sacrifice some lives in order to preserve others. They had to b sacrificed because they were not pure enough, because they were second-rate lives . . . (Ch.17, p.230)
So The Flowers of War is about how adversity has drawn the soldiers and the prostitutes into a close alliance. While tension and prejudice abounds, genuine bonds develop. That said, the novel does not seem to be tightly woven together. I attribute the blandness to the lack of a main character who carries the frame and weight of the entire book. For a subject matter so horrifying as the rape of Nanking, I am disappointed that a character with which to establish an emotional concern is lacking. Zhao Yumo, the leader of the prostitutes, comes closest. Graceful, decorous, and well-educated, “she does not carry herself like a prostitute;” even Deacon Fabio Adornato “forgot that this woman was a whore.” She is the one who volunteers surrendering to the Japanese in order to save the schoolgirls. Despite their cunning schemes to outwit the enemies, the priests strike me as cold and distant. The schoolgirls, especially 13-year-old Shujuan, are all supercilious brats and not worthy of sympathy, full of hateful attitude.
The Flowers of War is uneven, with parts that are more captivating than others. We never get to the bottom of these characters–and this is the major flaw of the book. The main story might be handled more densely in the form of a short story. It gives a sense of the visceral fear and horror of the Nanking massacre as it wounds or destroys the individuals, but as a story it lacks the meat.
250 pp. Vintage UK. Paper. [
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