Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
|Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Madeline Wheatley|
|Summary: An epic novel owing its title to the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. As the years progress from this seismic point the story moves from East to West following the fortunes of two families whose lives are framed by world events and the madness of war.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: March 2009|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing plc|
This is Kamila Shamsie's fifth novel and her most ambitious to date. Yet there is an intimacy to the story that belies its wide ranging scope. It covers the period between 1945 and the present day, during which its characters travel across continents. Issues of nationality, colonialism, prejudice, and the causes of terrorism are essential to the narrative. But there is a quintessentially human, small scale thread running through the book in the form of Hiroko and her family. These are very real people caught up in turbulent times.
The defining event of Hiroko's life is her survival of the atomic destruction of Nagasaki. In the opening section of the book, Shamsie describes the four critical hours in Hiroko's life that will have a lasting legacy. The author's ability to capture the heart of a thing in a few words is very evident in this sequence. Just consider Hiroko's observation on the nature of war:
How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.
Shamsie's economy with words is also apparent in her ability to summarise aspects of her characters. Can't you just see the individual described with these words: the confident air of a young man of twenty-four who has never known failure. This is part of the reader's introduction to the other key family in the story, the Burtons, who enter Hiroko's life when she moves from Nagasaki for a new life in Delhi.
The final days of British occupancy of India are acutely described, through a close portrait of the lives of Hiroko and what is effectively her new family - the Burtons and their employee Sajjad Ashraf. Indian partition leads to Hiroko making her home in Pakistan. Here the action moves forward to the 1980's and Hiroko's young son Raza becomes the book's focal point. Any parent of a teenage boy reading this book will recognise Raza, and the impact his actions have on his parents. Your heart will ache for this young man and his family.
Shamsie has the ability to draw an incredible range of emotional response from the reader, and you are likely to be on the edge of your seat in the second half of this book. Though less reflective than the initial chapters, the fast paced movement reinforces the feeling of events sliding beyond our control. It certainly makes for compulsive reading.
This would be a great title to discuss in a book group, though I would also recommend it for personal ownership, as I am sure it would repay a second reading. One final point: it is a beautifully produced book – a strong argument for the benefits of the real thing versus the e-book if ever there was one!
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestions:
Brick Lane by Monica Ali for a different view of making a new home in another country.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell if the broad chronological sweep of Burnt Shadows was what appealed.
Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard for another take on the effect of warfare.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is in the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.
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