Review: Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie

There was something she had learnt to recognise after Nagasaki, after Partition: those who could step out from loss, and those who would remain mired in it.  (p. 149)

Burnt Shadows is a moving story of war and prejudice spanning more than 50 years and 5 countries.  It begins  in 1945 Nagasaki, just before the bomb drops.  Hiroko Tanaka is 21 years old and engaged to Konrad Weiss, a German living in Japan.  The reader has just enough time to appreciate her idyllic world and the promise of love, when suddenly everything changes.  Hiroko survived; Konrad did not.  The title comes from a description of the bomb’s aftermath:

Days — no, weeks — after the bomb and everything still smelt of burning. I walked through it — those strangely angled trees above the melted stone, somehow that’s what struck me the most — and I looked for Konrad’s shadow. I found it. Or I found something that I believed was it. On a rock.  (p. 78)

Hiroko leaves Japan for India, where Konrad’s sister Ilse lives with her British husband James.  Hiroko and Ilse become close friends.  Hiroko marries Shajjad Ashraf, and in 1947 the Partition forces them to start a new life in Pakistan.  They have a son, Raza, and remain friendly with Ilse and her son Harry.  Hiroko is a constant presence, struggling throughout her life to come to terms with the impact of the bomb.  The focus of the story gradually shifts to Raza, whose mixed ethnicity creates both opportunities and challenges.  The final chapters are set in post-9/11 New York City, where a country built through immigration is suddenly seized by fear, and driven to conformity:

But then, things shifted. The island seemed tiny, people’s views drunken. How could a place so filled with immigrants take the idea of “patriotism” so seriously? (p. 295)

There were several points where I was afraid the book might develop into one big cliché, but fortunately that never happened.  In every era and every setting, Kamila Shamsie maintained a steady drumbeat of messages about war, race, and bigotry.  And the ending was far from neat and tidy, clearly showing these issues will remain with us for a long time.

Addendum (27 July 2010):  I lowered the rating by half a star.  The first half of this book is very strong, but the second half is not as tightly written, and some of the situations are less believable.  The overall theme and message had a strong impact on me, leading to an initial 4-star rating, but on further reflection, it didn’t quite stand up to other 4-star reads.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie

  1. I liked this book, but didn’t love it. I thought the first section was wonderful, but then it went down hill – I thought that Hiroko ended up in too many key historical moments and so it felt a bit contrived. I’ll probably still read Shamsie’s next book though – she does have a talent for writing.

    • Jackie, I agree there was a contrast between the first parts (Nagasaki-Delhi) and the rest of the novel. There were points in the New York section especially that lacked focus and meandered all over the place. My opinion began to go down …

      But then I also felt Shamsie so accurately portrayed American attitudes during that time (er, still somewhat accurate today), and she steered away from some possible trite outcomes such that in the end, she earned my respect again.

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