Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows

I hesitated before beginning Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) because, while not overly long, at nearly 400 pages neither is it overly short.  Also, so far this year I haven’t been in the mood for a “widescreen” novel (thanks John Self and KevinfromCanada for making that a term of art).  That said, I did want to read the book in a timely manner and especially before several other books I’ve been pining for arrived in the mail.  So one sleepless night, I got out of bed and picked it up just to test the water.  What I encountered was an excellently rendered, personal account of an engaged couple’s last day together in Nagasaki, just before it was destroyed when the New Bomb dropped.  This completely cleared my mind of all other concerns (which was nice when it came time to go to sleep again) and set me up to enjoy this quick-moving, ambitious new novel.

burnt-shadows

Free copy courtesy of Picador.

Recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize, this novel focuses on the surviving fiancée, Hiroko Tanaka, and some of the people she becomes linked to through the rest of her life.  Ambitiously, Shamsie weaves these lives around some of the major events that ushered out the first half of the twentieth century leaving their shadow on the second half of the century and still now in the first part of the twenty-first. 

The prologue begins with a man being thrust into a cell, stripped, and then dressed in the now-symbolic orange jumpsuit.  He asks the interesting key line that speaks to the novel’s political and personal threads: “How did it come to this . . . .”  The novel then goes back in time to Nagasaki, the day the bomb dropped.  Hiroko Tanaka is a twenty-one-year-old Japanese woman, engaged to marry Konrad Weiss.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short section, entitled “The Yet Unknowing World,” with the bomb sirens going off and the young couple concerned about the inconvenience. 

In the shelter at Urakami, Hiroko is packed in so tightlybetween her neighbours she cannot even raise a hand to wipe the sweat damping her hairline.  It hasn’t been so crowded in here since the early days of the air-raid sirens.

This section is full of life—though brief, Shamsie allows the characters’ relationships to develop—even while it brings us to death.  Hiroko survives the atomic blast, but the image of some cranes from a kimono she was wearing at the explosion were forever burned onto her back.  The scars become a personal symbol of the painful event and the “taint” Hiroko carried away from it, but it is also a larger metaphor for the shadow of nuclear destruction that has hung over the world since.

The novel then takes the reader through the characters’ interlaced story as the narrative moves from Nagasaki to India, 1947, in the last days of the Raj; then to Pakistan in the early 1980s as the mujahideen train to expel the Russians from Afghanistan (are you seeing a trend); and then to New York and Afghanistan just post–September 11, 2001.  The artifice in taking a few central characters through each of these large historical moments is artifice, but it didn’t feel contrived because it is not so much impossible as it is implausible.  Also, this is not like Forrest Gump; these characters remain on the periphery of the action.  And even if it is implausible, watching these characters move from one hotspot to the next leads to many surprising and pleasing episodes—personal and political—that come together nicely. 

However, with all of the political/historical ties, this novel has a much stronger narrative focus than I usually like in a novel with such ominous overtones.  After the intimacy in Nagasaki, the next two segments in the novel, taking place in Delhi and Pakistan, didn’t hold me as much.  It felt at times that Shamsie was trying to set down some roots in the location and then prepare to move on to the next one.  It was all spelled out.  I like to meet a book halfway, but for the middle of the book it felt like the plot was overplayed, depriving the reader of really making these important connections for him or herself.  I hoped, based on the allegorical setup, for more nuance (or less—perhaps it was me!).  While Shamsie often begins a chapter by disorienting the reader, usually within a few pages we know all that has happened and there is no more ambiguity.  This is more a matter of my taste and expectations, and not necessarily a fault; I found the book’s gripping plot compelling and I’m sure many others will too.

Despite what I said about overplaying the plot, Shamsie’s writing is excellent and not overplayed at all.  I haven’t included a lot of it here because I think context (like the story, the prose is all linked nicely) is important.  Taking it out of context just didn’t work.  Here’s a nice passage, however, from the section in Delhi; you don’t need to know the who what where why to appreciate the subversive coda which applies to the events and the intimate lives:

There was nowhere in the world more beautiful than Mussoorie, Elizabeth Burton thought, standing at the top of her garden slope, watching either mist or cloud cling to the white peaks of the Himalayas in the distance while the scent of pine forests drifted down from the top of the hill on which the Burton cottage nestled.  What a pity beauty could be so meaningless.

Shamsie’s characters are excellently realized, and their perspectives on the events taking place around them are insightful, opening up a world of perspectives for a contemporary audience. 

And while I complain about the focus on the narrative, the novel ends nicely, pulling together the personal and historical strings and offering an ending that reminded me a great deal of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, finishing Shamsie’s work of tying the past to the present.

27 thoughts on “Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows

  1. I agree with almost everything you say. I too found the initial section in Japan the strongest, and the Indian/Pakastan sections slightly weaker.

    The only thing I disagree with are your thoughts on the ending. I didn’t like it at all. The writing style seemed to change in the last few chapters, and it came across more like a slapstick thriller than the beautiful prose which had occured previously.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Jackie. By the way, now that I’ve approved your comment, any more you leave later will not need to be approved by me. Had a spam leak a few months ago.

    Well, in my main post I didn’t want to give away too much, Jackie, but when I said “ending” I meant the very “ending” and not the last few chapters in total. I didn’t mind the ending in all, but I was fully impressed with the last page.

    By the way, another thing I didn’t want to bring up in the main post: did it bother anyone else that the book never used the objective tense “whom”? At least five times I was jarred by the misuse, which, at that quantity, had to have been deliberate, right? I don’t mind when books written in a certain voice disregard this, but this was from an omniscient, intelligent narrator. I don’t mind when someone disregards the rule of no split infinitives or no ending a sentence with a preposition because those rules make no sense in the English language (to me, at any rate), but to disregard pronoun tense? But maybe it was not deliberate. Hmmmmm.

  3. Rob says:

    I won’t read your review just yet, Trevor, because I have Burnt Shadows waiting to be read right now. But I’ll be back, oh I’ll be back…

  4. Trevor says:

    Glad to see you’re not trying to pass on my review alone, Rob. Looking forward to your thoughts. Good luck!

  5. Trevor – My blog is set up in the same way – it is a great way to avoid the spam.

    I can’t remember the last page being that good. I wanted to re-read it on your recommendation, but unfortunately I’ve sold my copy of Burnt Shadows already. (I sell books online, so like a quick turnover of newly released books). I’ll try to have a quick look next time I’m in a bookshop!

    I’m afraid I didn’t notice the misuse of the objective tense – but I often don’t spot things like this, so I’ll have to leave it for others to answer this question for you.

  6. Colette Jones says:

    “It was all spelled out.”

    This is the problem I found with the book and I do not feel generous toward it at all. I have put it aside after the Dehli section. I might come back to it later, after I’ve finished the rest of the Orange Prize shortlist.

  7. Trevor says:

    It picked up for me after the Delhi section, and I might have put it down too except for I loved the first section and KFC and DGR gave it good reviews stating that it got better. It does.

    That said, Colette, you might not feel too bad missing the rest of the book. I think it still spells it out; I just enjoyed the content more and felt more engaged by the characters in modern history than in Delhi. Too many great books have already covered the end of the Raj with much greater effect and nuance. To me that was just a linking block to get from Nagasaki to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

  8. While I think I liked this book more than you did Trevor (and I am not sayiing you disliked it), it is a “story” book — and if as a reader you aren’t engaged in the story, it can get tedious. Since we do know the history of the various places where the story stops, the book has to be carried by character — while it did that for me, I can understand where it would fail for other readers. Still a worthwhile read, I think.

  9. I can see how a commenter above thinks that the ending to Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows makes the novel into slapstick thriller territory. However, I thought the ending was perfect all the same because it ensures that the underlying message in the book will remain with the reader for a long time.

    I think there is an interesting comparison to be made between Shamsie’s novel and Monica Ali’s recent novel: ‘In the Kitchen’. Without going into too much detail on the latter, Ali, I think, was unsuccessful in delivering her message through the unconvincing characters in her novel. There are sections of the novel – often quite long – where we just hear the author’s voice, not the character’s. The keyword in every review of Burnt Shadows that I have read is ‘ambitious’. What makes Shamsie remarkable is that, unlike Ali, her characters are well integrated into the storyline itself. Shamsie’s task was far more difficult but her ambition paid dividends.

  10. Trevor says:

    Kamila Shamsie is responding to questions about her book today on Twitter. #pic6

  11. Trevor says:

    If Mookse and the Gripes’ review of her Orange Prize-shortlisted Burnt Shadows is accurate, Kamila Shamsie scores the hat trick with an image that is at once plagiaristic, ludicrous, and politically correct: “Hiroko survives the [Hiroshima] atomic blast, but the image of some cranes from a kimono she was wearing at the explosion were forever burned onto her back.”

    Got this posted on A Common Place Blog, and I wondered what anyone thinks.

    I’m not sure why it’s plagiaristic since Shamsie admits that she got the idea for the book when seeing pictures of women who had kimono patterns burnt into their skin following the atomic bomb explosion. That also makes it plausible. I’m curious why A Commonplace Blog would respond this way to this image.

  12. I’d say that blog observation hits its own hat trick — Shamsi’s image is not plagiaristic, ludicrous, or politically correct. Even on a blog it is pretty hard to go 0 for 3.

    Having just finished the Monica Ali (and it was hard work) I fully agree with A Thoughtful Reader’s comparison of the two books. Ali’s has great potential on a number of fronts and fails to realize any of it. As she fails to develop her characters (and sometimes even her plot lines), the book becomes an annoying lecture on her theme. Shamsi, for me at least, used the geographical and historical elements of her story as context to develop her cast of characters — and I think did a good job of that.

  13. Trevor says:

    I don’t think A Commonplace Blog has read the book, which means my review gave those impressions. Hmmm.

  14. I have read the book and I certainly didn’t find your review misleading or leading to those conclusions. My speculation would be that A Commonplace Blog has reached a conclusion about a book that he/she doesn’t like and is misreading your review to support the conclusion. Every right to dislike the book; no right to misinterpret to support that dislike.

  15. Thanks for the review Trevor, this one hasn’t appealed to me (but then, I’ve bought so many books on the strength of your reviews, it’s rather a relief it doesn’t, I’m grateful you’ve taken pity on my bank account).

    Regarding the A Commonplace Blog comment, it makes sense to take a view a book based on a review, I’ve taken the view that this one probably isn’t for me for example, but it must needs be a view that’s subject to possible change and that is recognised as being possibly wrong. Sometimes I’ve read a review, thought a book wouldn’t work for me, but decided on subsequent comments or reviews that actually it might after all. We have to take some view because we can’t read everything, but we also have to recognise it’s just that, a view, it’s not the same as actually reading the work.

    To use terms such as plagiaristic (which suggests not actual plagiarism, rather it sounds like an aggressive way of saying its unoriginal) is very harsh when you haven’t actually read the work, or even skimmed it in the shop. What politically correct means in this context, I have no idea (actually that’s not quite right, I have a fairly good idea, but I’d rather not go there and I don’t agree). As for ludicrous, it happened, so it’s not. Kevin’s take on the motivation sounds persuasive to me.

    Anyway, enough of that, great review Trevor and one I thought gave me at least enough to consider to form my own tentative view. Thanks again.

  16. Trevor says:

    I had a brief Twitter exchange about this with Kamila Shamsie who said: “it’s so often the non-fiction parts of novels that people find the most unbelievable!”

    All interesting. I have no qualms about any of it. I’ve jumped too soon to many conclusions and will surely do so again. I’m still curious as to what other work used the same idea, though. I’m not trying to suggest there isn’t another work. I’m sure there is, and I’d like to know what it is.

  17. Trevor says:

    I may have jumped to a conclusion here, in fact. A Commonplace Blog does not dispute the reality of the images. This is a comment in reply to my inquiry on A Commonplace Blog.

    Trevor,

    The photo can be examined here. I do not dispute that this photo is one source for Shamsie’s image. But the more immediate and definitive source is obviously the choketree that has been whipped onto Sethe’s back in Beloved. The fiction that an image can be discerned on a victim’s back belongs to Morrison, not to the historical photo.

    Perhaps “secondhand” or “derivative” would be the more exact term for Shamsie’s appropriation of this image.

  18. It seems to me that the idea of scars (whatever their source) leaving an image is common enough in literature back to the pre-Victorians that any idea of it being “an appropriation of image” is ludicrous. And I have no idea how some could reach the conclusion that “the more immediate and definitive source is obviously” from Beloved. It not only is not obvious to me, I can’t fathom how anyone could actually decide that there is a link, beyond coincidence, in the fact that both authors used a not uncommon device. (I do note that no accusations are being launched against Morrison, only Shamsie). Sorry, sloppy and unfair criticism of authors is every bit as bad — in fact worse — than sloppy writing.

  19. Trevor says:

    My thoughts exactly, Kevin. Walcott used scars symbolically—to represent slavery, in fact. Did he appropriate that from Morrison? Sure, the Walcott’s scars didn’t come together to form an image, but . . . scars have always been given symbolic meaning, whether or not they make a picture.

    My guess is that since Beloved is a favorite of the academy, it’s being defended vigorously. I respect Morrison and don’t think that Shamsie is going to eclipse her, but I certainly couldn’t care less even if Shamsie patently robbed the idea from Morrrison. I’m with you in not even going there, though.

  20. Just happened to be watching a DVD of the 1974 BBC production of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her (1865) last night. One of the more sinister characters features a scar along his cheek in both book and tv production. The “obvious” source for both Morrison and Shamsie. Anyone who claims the image originates with Morrison may want to start reading a few more authors.

  21. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I was just recalling two (two!) characters J.K. Rowling chose to inflict scars upon. Harry’s obvious lightning scar and dear Dumbledore’s knee scar shaped like a map of the London Underground. What are editors doing these days?!

  22. Ubaid says:

    Please view the new page of Kamila Shamsie on Facebook. Check this out:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Kamila-Shamsie/91849702726?v=wall&viewas=1017950542

  23. Chhotu says:

    Scars in literature are as old as Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus had a hunting scar on his thigh by which his old nurse recognised him when he came home after 2 decades of war and its aftermath. The earliest novel to have a memorable scar was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (18C). In a recent interview to ABC, Kamila said she had heard about designs on white clothes having scarred people in the atomic blast of 1945. Originality is rarely something that comes out of the blue. Even Isaac Newton, talking about his achievements, said he stood on the shoulders of giants.

  24. mahesh says:

    it’s a good book

  25. Trevor says:

    As time went by, the less I liked this book. It just felt a bit too heavy-handed and the narrative fell apart for me at the end. However, my ideas could be due to forgetting some of the book and remembering only those aspects.

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