Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

The blurb: August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes with the sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi to find Konrad’s relatives, and falls in love with their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from who she starts to learn Urdu.

As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of two families as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11.

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  1. hilaryfbbc

     /  January 24, 2012

    I agree this was an ambitious novel, appropriately in my view when considering the scale of impact from the world-shattering events of the atomic explosions in Japan at the end of the war and then 9/11; the contrasts between the US and Japan in terms of response, approach, reporting, reaction and so forth being compared and contrasted through the characters and their intertwined stories.
    As I said at the meeting, this book had a lot of resonances for me personally through family connections, which brought events in the book somehow into a sharper focus for me and although it is hard to believe that so much can happen with people in (even) a fictional account, I loved the feeling of being swept along with the story – as happens in my experience all too rarely.
    I am planning to contact my nephew who lives in Japan and asking him to find out if the book has been published over there and if so what the reaction has been and I would also be interested to know what the US reviews say.
    I will update this if I find out!

  2. Hampered by clunky writing and a narrative arc which is at times barely credible, Shamsie still contrives to found her novel on a tight and effective structure. Spanning continents and decades, the most distant points of the novel only are connected by use of the present tense. (The prologue and the first section.) Additionally, the content of the prologue has been transplanted from its chronologically correct position at the conclusion of the novel. Taken together these two devices combine to create a marked cyclic structure, which reflects Shamsie’s political deliberations.

    The ambitious scale of the novel is facilitated by attentive patterning which sees characters subject to similar experiences across space and time. In the occasional burst of brilliance Shamsie’s writing suggests these connections with vivid imagery and subtle suggestion.

    Realisation of theme is not consistent across the board, but the depiction of ‘foreign-ness’ as a shifting and impermanent state is well done.


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