This wonderful book — “wonderful” literally, in that it is full of wonders — has taken an inexplicably long time to reach these shores. Published in England in 2008, a year before J.G. Ballard’s death from especially virulent prostate cancer, it only now appears in the United States, despite the immense popularity of his heavily autobiographical novel “Empire of the Sun” (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s even more popular (if considerably less successful artistically) film adaptation, released in 1987. To be sure, Ballard, whose literary energies principally were devoted to cutting-edge science fiction, never was a regular on bestseller lists, but he certainly had and still has a large and loyal following in this country.
The only explanation I can come up with for the tardy arrival of “Miracles of Life” over here is that it covers the same ground Ballard treated fictionally in “Empire of the Sun” and its sequel, “The Kindness of Women” (1991). The first covers his boyhood in Shanghai, most notably the two years he and his family spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, while the second is about his return to England, a country he scarcely knew, his gradual adjustment to life there with its attendant peculiarities, the sudden death in 1964 of his beloved wife and his decision to raise their three children by himself — an uncommon choice at the time and one that puzzled many of those who knew him, the women among them most especially.
‘Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography’ by J.G. Ballard (Liveright)
So no important surprises await Ballard loyalists in “Miracles of Life,” unless one counts the appearance therein of his mother and father, whom he chose to omit from “Empire of the Sun” because he wanted to tell the story solely from the point of view of the boy, also named Jim Ballard. What awaits loyalists and all other readers, on the other hand, are many pleasures: exceptionally lucid, graceful and evocative prose; a heartfelt and deeply moving account of Ballard’s too-brief marriage and his great love for his children; a careful delineation of his writing career and the determination with which he pursued it despite numerous setbacks and disappointments; and a further exploration of the central themes of his work, among them “the surrealism of everyday life” and “an attempt to appease death, to buy off the executioner who waits for us all in a quiet garden nearby, like [the painter and sculptor Francis] Bacon’s figure in his herringbone jacket who sits patiently at a table with a machine gun beside him.”
As if “Empire of the Sun” were not evidence enough, “Miracles of Life” makes absolutely clear that Ballard’s boyhood in Shanghai was the shaping experience of his life. It was “90 per cent Chinese and 100 per cent Americanised,” a place where “the everyday reality of the city” was at times so bizarre that “I sometimes wonder if everyday reality was the one element missing from the city.” Ballard’s father was “the chairman of a prominent English company,” and the Ballard family, which included his mother and a younger sister, lived a prosperous life in a comfortable house just outside the International Settlement. Jim was a curious and adventuresome boy who roamed almost every corner of the city, which “struck me as a magical place, a self-generating fantasy that left my own little mind far behind,” but also a place where starving and dying Chinese were common. An old man died right at the entrance to the Ballards’ driveway: