Burnt Shadows
by Kamila Shamsie (2009)
Bond Street Books (2009)
384 pp


Free copy courtesy of Picador.

I hesitated before beginning Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows 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.

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 tightly between 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.

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