Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, this is just the latest amazing novel by Shamsie. Years ago I read Salt and Saffron by her and was utterly captivated. So when the opportunity came along to review this newest book, I couldn't pass it up.

The three-part story of Hiroko, a Japanese woman who survives the Nagasaki blast, this is a sprawling novel spanning four countries, two continents, and modern wars. Opening in Nagasaki before the dropping of the atomic bomb, Hiroko lives with her father and visits her love and fiance Konrad, a German ex-pat who has come to Nagasaki after being told by his half-sister and brother-in-law that he, because of his German heritage, was unwelcome in British controlled India. But when the bomb falls on Nagasaki, Konrad and Hiroko's father both die and she is marked forever by the embroidered design from her kimono, carrying the burnt shadows of the title on the skin of her back for the rest of her life.

After the war, Hiroko travels to Delhi, India to find Konrad's sister and the Indian boy he spoke of so fondly, the one whom he placed in his brother-in-law's law office, Sajjad Ashraf. While living with Elizabeth (Ilse) and James Burton, Konrad's sister and brother-in-law, Hiroko and Sajjad fall in love, despite their disparate backgrounds. They elope against the backdrop of the withdrawal of the British from India and then find themselves barred from returning to Sajjad's beloved Delhi by dint of their having been out of the country during the Partition and Sajjad's Muslim faith. They make a life for themselves in Pakistan, raising a son, as their lives continue to criss-cross with the lives of Elizabeth Burton and her son Harry. This time, it's not the bomb that shadows their lives but the mujahideen and their fight.

And finally, after tragedy strikes Hiroko once more in Pakistan, she travels to the US where the Burton and Ashraf families again become irretrievably intertwined. And again Hiroko is shadowed by war, this time by the powerful unrest in the Middle East and her own fears when her adopted country of Pakistan becomes a nuclear nation.

As always, Shamsie's writing is astonishing and her characterizations are complex and full. She never mutes the horror of the tragedies that befall Hiroko but she doesn't sensationalize them either, using them to underscore the cost of war in human terms. She tackles morality, racism, and human nature and yet she weaves these themes together into her story so effortlessly that they do not stand out screaming their importance but instead subtley push the reader to consider his or her beliefs and prejudices, especially in this modern age. The novel is haunting and powerful and well-done. She's captured terror, both inflicted and received while she's also rendered the humanity and dignity of those who live their everyday lives with the shadows of terror on their skin, in their minds, and in the actions around them. A brilliant novel, this is one that all readers should add to their lists.

As a side note to those on budgets: this has been released as a paperback original, a trend I'd love to see more of by publishers.


  1. This was a thoughtful and well-written post, so much so that I'm adding this book to my summer reading list. Well done!

  2. I enjoyed reading your review of Burnt Shadows. I read and reviewed this one too recently. I liked it, but didn't love it.

  3. I enjoyed reading Burnt Shadows, but thought it was a bit too ambitious. It tried to fit too much in and so felt a bit contrived. Did you like the ending? I thought it was a bit like a bad thriller!

    The first chapter was amazing though. I look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

  4. I don't know that I agree that it felt contrived with all that it had in it (I think interconnectedness is one of the themes) but I will agree that the ending was less than I hoped for. On the other hand, I don't know how else it could have ended and satisfied me. Obviously hipper, happily ever after would never have worked.

  5. I finished *Burnt Shadows* four days ago and haven't been able to start another book -- the story has affected me that deeply ...

  6. Just finished Burnt Shadows. Only after reading the entire book did I truly appreciate her literary devices. The disjointed time lines, where the plot picks up in the middle of something "important", felt a bit contrived--at the time of reading it. The minor characters a little too stilted in her attempt to propel the plot and the complexity of ideas forward. But upon reflection, it illustrated how complex the issues are. Just when you think you understand the current global conflict, you are jarringly forced to reconsider; your own preconceptions and prejudices are drawn into the drama and you are faced with your own culpability. As an intellectual challenge it was a perfect piece, her insightful and enlightening viewpoint unlike anything I've read on the topic. It's a must-read.

  7. I'm still on the fence with this one, but I'm leaning more toward read. I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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