3.5 STARS. Kamila Shamsie's "Burnt Shadows" is a multigenerational, historical novel, spanning almost sixty years. The reader is taken back in time to Nagasaki, Japan, on that fateful day in 1945 when the second atomic bomb was dropped, resulting in 20,000 deaths and over 50,000 people wounded. The first bomb was dropped a few days earlier in Hiroshima. The plot and characters move on to the terrible violence of the Partition of British India, 1947, which leads to the creation of the sovereign states of Pakistan and the Union of India. Approximately 500,000 people, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were slaughtered during the religious massacres which occurred then. The sweeping storyline carries the reader, along with a chain of characters, Japanese, British, American, Indian, Pakistani and Afghani, through the years, encompassing various personal and geopolitical events, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and India, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the mujahideen fighters who were taught by the CIA to repel the Soviet enemy, the brutal fighting and bombing of Kosovo, al Qaeda and the Taliban, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The characters' lives are interwoven into these historical periods, as are their fates.
The book's recurring theme is man's inhumanity to man. If Death were a character here, how busy he/it would be, picking up souls from all the dead - their deaths needlessly caused by inhumanity and lust for power, riches and religious fanaticism. One wonders at those who have the power and the means to drop nuclear weapons which can destroy a city full of innocent people, and scar their descendents for generations to come. Again, one can only wonder at those with the power and means to draw borders between peoples to create artificial nations, which divide these same peoples further - by nationality, ethnicity and/or religion. And who are these people, with so much power, that they can devise and realize a heinous plan to fly airplanes into skyscrapers filled with fellow human beings?
The brief prologue is set in an unknown prison in the frist years of the 21st century. A young man is unshackled and told to strip. He suspects that he will soon be dressed in an orange jumpsuit. His body shrivels in the cold damp cell. This is an era of enhanced interrogation - torture. He wonders, "How did it come to this?"
We travel back in timer to Nagasaki, Japan. It is the summer of 1945. Hiroko Tanaka, a young schoolteacher living in Nagasaki, is in love with Konrad Weiss, a German artist and scholar who attempts to discover how Eastern and Western civilizations might live together in harmony. Hiroko speaks German and she met Konrad while translating for him soon after his arrival in Nagasaki. He came to Japan because his half-sister, Ilse, (Elizabeth), and her husband, James Burton, members of the British colonial community residing in Delhi, would prefer not to be associated with a German relative while WWII rages throughout Europe.
Hiroko believes that the war will end quickly, and soon she and Konrad will be together in a world where "there will be food and silk....and she will never have to enter a munitions factory or a bomb shelter again." As soon as the war ends "there will be a ship to take her and Konrad far away." She steps out onto her balcony, wrapped in a kimono with a design of three swooping black cranes on the back. "And then the world goes white!" The burned imprint of those cranes will remain on Hiroko's back for the rest of her life. And she does live, although seriously burned, ill with radiation poisoning, and a poisoning of the soul. Konrad, on the other hand doesn't make it. Hiroko is now a "hibakushi," a "bomb affectee," her new defining feature. Those nearest to the epicenter of the nuclear blast, like Konrad, were eradicated completely...."only fat from their bodies sticking to the walls and rocks around them" were left, "like shadows." Hiroko looks for Konrad's shadow and she finds it on a rock, or she finds comfort in believing it is his shadow. She rolls the rock to the cemetery and buries it there, along with her dreams.
Searching for a new beginning, Hiroko travels to Delhi two years later. There she enters the lives of Konrad's relatives, the Burtons. They accept her as Konrad's former fiancee, after doing a background check, of course. She also meets, Sajjad Ashraf, a young Muslim and legal apprentice who works for James Burton. He begins to teach her Urdu. The two eventually fall in love, despite the Burton's misgivings. Hiroko Tanaka is "Burnt Shadows'" protagonist and the reader views the new post WWII world through her eyes.
The threat, (or promise - depending on one's viewpoint), of Partition is ever present. Sajjad does not want to leave India, but the Burtons convince him to go with his new wife, Hiroko, to an old friend's house in Istanbul, Turkey, to keep safe until the violence subsides. When he tries to return to Delhi, however, the new Indian government won't let him back because the couple left during the Partition. Reluctantly, the Ashrafs move to Karachi, with Sajjad as a "mohajir," a derogatory term for refugees from India.
The plot becomes more complex as Raza, the Ashrafs' son, becomes involved with Afghani refugees and with the mujahideen who are fighting the Russians in the 1980's. It is at this time that the young man inadvertently becomes involved with the CIA. Harry Burton, son of James and Elizabeth, enters the story and also plays a prominent role.
As the various storylines surrounding the Burton and Ashraf families unfold, the years pass and the narrative moves between Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York City, with unforeseeable and lethal consequences. The surprise ending plays out in the months following 9/11. I don't want to include spoilers, but I was disappointed by the denouement. It seemed too hastily put together and I was left hanging in the air.
Although the author's prose occasionally reaches the poetic, the narrative is very slow at times, and the writing is uneven. As fascinated as I was by parts of the plot, I was very bored by others. I think Ms. Shamsie attempts to squeeze too much information into one book. I would have rated this novel 4 Stars, even with the literary shortcomings, but my boredom with major parts of the novel causes me to rate this with 3 or 3.5 Stars. I do recommend reading 'Burnt Shadows," especially for those interested in the historical period covered here.
Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi. Two of her previous novels, "Kartography" and "Broken Verses," have won awards from Pakistan's Academy of Letters. "Burnt Shadows" was a finalist for the Orange Prize.
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