Flowers of War cover

December 1937, Nanking, China. Advancing Japanese forces have routed the Chinese army. Those who are able bodied have fled in disarray. Women and children, the old injured and infirm are left to the mercy of a marauding Japanese army. Anarchy rules and every man and woman is left to fend for themselves.

In the midst of the ensuing carnage are the girls of the St. Mary Magdalene Mission run by Father Engelmann and his assistant Deacon Adornato. The Mission and attached church are considered neutral as both are owned and run by Americans. A pretext however simple which provides Father Engelmann with some hope of safety.

The main character in the novel is Shujuan, a young schoolgirl abandoned in the mission by her globetrotting parents. It is she who serves as the conduit through which the reader observes the events in the city and their eventual conclusion.

Short of both food and water the sixteen girls in the mission are soon joined by a group of prostitutes fleeing the fighting. It is only with extreme reluctance that the priests agree to shelter the women and at then only for a very short time.

The women are lead by Zhao Yumo who tries but does not always succeed in maintaining order and a certain amount of decorum among the women. In such a cramped environment tensions within and between both parties arise and it falls to Zhao Yumo to maintain peace in the face of such external terror.

The novel brings together both the innocence of the schoolgirls and the experience of the prostitutes. Two groups which on the surface have nothing much in common but when put side by side seem to mirror one another in unexpected ways.

Yan downplays descriptions of the horrors of war and the brutality of the Japanese occupation of Nanking. The temptation must have been there to be wholly graphic, that she refuses to descend to truly horrific lows shows her maturity as a writer. The terror and horror of war however are never far away and until the end the reader is unsure as to what the fate of the characters shall be.

Any Cop?: A heartbreaking tale of love, brutality, companionship, bravery and sacrifice. Within these pages author Geling Yan subtly tells a story of human tragedy and humanity.

Joe Phelan