Burnt Shadows

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Burnt Shadows By Kamila Shamsie, book reviewIn the early 21st Century a man stands naked and frightened in a cell contemplating that when he dresses again it will probably be in an orange jumpsuit. We don’t need to be told what that means. He asks himself “How did it come to this?” and in the next 363 pages we find out.

Nearly 70 years before, Hiroko stood on the veranda thinking about Konrad, the man she had just agreed to marry. In a flash of white light Konrad became a shadow on a rock and Hiroko was scarred for life, the three cranes embroidered on her silk kimono fused to the skin of her back. The time is 1945, the place is Nagasaki.

Shunned by her neighbours Hiroko goes in search of Konrad’s sister Elizabeth, and finds her living a privileged life in loveless marriage in Delhi with her husband James. The couple take her to their hearts and she becomes one of the family until she shocks her hosts by falling in love with their employee Sajjad, converts to Islam and marries him.

With the Partition of India imminent, James encourages the couple to flee to Turkey to escape the bloodshed, but when they want to return Sajjad is no longer welcome in the city he loves. They go instead to Pakistan where many years later they have a son, Raza. Like his mother, the boy is a talented linguist, picking up languages with ease but repeatedly failing his most crucial school exam.

With sharp intellect but no prospect of getting into university, the devil finds work for Raza’s idle hands. When Raza gets into trouble – passing himself off as a Hazara Afghan, he finds himself – via labyrinthine twists of the plot – in a terrorist training camp. It’s quite an achievement when all he really wanted was a ride to go up country and visit his uncle. James and Elizabeth’s son, Harry, gets Raza out of hot water but with tragic consequences for his parents. Harry recruits Raza to the murky world of ‘private security’ in some very insecure lands.

Burnt Shadows is a story of making your home where you find it, moving on and forgiving those who’ve trespassed against you…”

Hiroko has lost her man again and just like before she goes in search of her old friend, heading to the USA, the land that destroyed her city and her fiancé, to live again with Elizabeth and with Harry’s daughter Kim. Hiroko and Kim find themselves embroiled in Raza’s plot to help his childhood friend escape back to Pakistan That’s a very abbreviated version of a complex and compelling plot and a short answer to that question of “How did it come to this?” without hopefully revealing any of the key plot twists.

Kamila Shamsie is one of my favourite authors and I’ve read several of her other books but none made such a mark on me as Burnt Shadows. She’s unafraid to take on the most shocking events of the 20th and early 21st century. From the atomic bombs dropped on Japan through to the attacks on the World Trade Centre, via Partition and the Russian-Afghan war, she moves her characters from country to country to place them in the middle of some of the biggest events of recent history. By virtue of making her lead characters great linguists and by giving Raza a genetic mix that means nobody’s every quite sure who he is or where he’s from, she gives them a freedom to roam.

Burnt Shadows is a story of making your home where you find it, moving on and forgiving those who’ve trespassed against you, and of the power of loyalty to both family and friends. It’s not the story of a single character – I expected that Hiroko would lead us through the book but she hands the mantle of responsibility for the plot to Raza about half way through without the clumsiness that often goes with a split lead role. Elizabeth and her son Harry and granddaughter Kim each step up to the mark when required to do so – to some extent even poor James does his bit. Hiroko exhibits an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness and moving on and a chameleon-like ability to fit into her surroundings yet she never knows that her son is driven to take risks by the scars others see in him by virtue of his mother’s history as a Nagasaki survivor. Shamsie was born in Pakistan and must have picked up some of the prejudices of her parents’ and grandparent’s generations but despite that she writes about Delhi with an affection that’s hard to connect with a Pakistani writer.

Who fits where and with whom? It’s hard to tell. Who is really what they seem to be and when the chips are down, who can Raza trust? As the plot switches from historic romance to war story to 9/11 spy story, there’s something for everyone in this fabulous novel although it’s only fair to warn would-be readers that the ending is a bit flat and may leave you with more questions than it answers. I wanted two or three more chapters tucked on the end. I’d have liked a happy ending of some kind but on balance I was more than happy with what I got. Kamila Shamsie just gets better with every book.

The book has been shortlisted for Orange Prize 2009.

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Burnt Shadows
by Kamila Shamsie

One Comment on "Burnt Shadows"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    19/11/2010 at 10:10 Permalink

    Sounds worth a read, I do like books which take in historical events – especially when its done well, as sounds the case here.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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