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Originally published Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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‘Miracles of Life’: J.G. Ballard tells his own story

Readers of J.G. Ballard’s autobiography “Miracles of Life” are in for some surprises: the “Empire of the Sun” author was a devoted family man. But Ballard’s sense of “sabotaged realities,” learned on the streets of Shanghai, pervades his books.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography’

by J.G. Ballard

Liveright, 250 pp., $25.95

“Warm,” “poignant” and “loving” aren’t adjectives you’d readily apply to the work of British novelist J.G. Ballard (1930-2009). But in his memoir “Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an Autobiography” — written after he’d been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and published in England a year before his death — those adjectives are what come to mind ... albeit with some subversive, complicating twists.

Ballard is best known for “Empire of the Sun,” a 1984 Booker Prize finalist inspired by his years in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai when he was in his early teens. The novel was later made into a film by Steven Spielberg, starring a young Christian Bale in the Ballard role.

One enduring question for readers of the novel concerns what liberties Ballard took with his internment-camp experience in shaping his harrowing yet oddly invigorating tale. Answers can be found in “Miracles of Life.”

He was never, he reveals, separated from his parents the way young “Jim” is in the novel: “I thought hard about this, but I felt that it was closer to the psychological and emotional truth to make ‘Jim’ effectively a war orphan.”

A lingering postwar gulf between Ballard and his parents made him yearn to handle his own fatherhood differently. Few writers have written so zestfully on marriage and family life.

“The family and all the emotions within it are a way of testing one’s better qualities,” he says, “a trampoline on which one can leap ever higher, holding one’s wife and children by their hands.”

He enjoyed his bliss for only nine years before his wife, Mary, developed severe pneumonia on a family vacation and died in 1964. Ballard, unusually for the time, insisted on raising his three children — the “miracles of life” of his memoir’s title — by himself.

“I probably needed them more than they needed me,” he writes. “I did my best to be both mother and father to them.”

The memoir is utterly moving when Ballard addresses these vicissitudes. But the gimlet-eyed Ballard, casting a perversely serene gaze on the worlds unraveling around him, is strongly present, too.

“I would see something strange and mysterious,” he says of the Shanghai sights he took in as a boy, “and treat it as normal.” He sums up the Chinese city’s 1930s essence in one doozy of a sentence: “Unlimited venture capitalism rode in gaudy style down streets lined with beggars showing off their sores and wounds.”

As violence and destruction were visited upon Shanghai by the Japanese, Ballard’s sense of “normal” life as a highly provisional construct became almost an article of faith. “Reality itself,” he realized, “was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment.”

That sense of sabotaged realities permeates all his fiction, from “The Drowned World” (1952) to his final novel, “Kingdom Come” (2006). “Miracles of Life,” along with telling his own powerful personal story, casts light on where his unique vision came from.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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