Burnt Shadows Paperback
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Surviving Nagasaki with the images of three birds burned into her back, Hiroko has lost the man she loves, Konrad Weiss, a German. Konrad's sister, Ilse, is married to an Englishman, James Burton. Two years later, when Hiroko travels to India to meet Konrad's family, she has no idea that her future will be intricately twined with the Burton's, or that she will meet her future husband, Sajjad Ashraf, in their home. While the Burton's personify England's imperialism and arrogance, Hiroko views life through a different prism, a woman who has lost everything, even her home. History shifts once again, the British departing India on the cusp of the Partition and the swath of violence than ensues. Living in Pakistan with Sajjad, Hiroko's family remains inextricably linked with the Burton's through circumstance, future generations experiencing the reverberations of those connections as they make critical life choices.
This novel opens a window into history, world events as significant as the characters; yet without these wonderfully nuanced characters it would be impossible to understand the ramifications of political evolution, the tangled web of nationalism and individual decisions, how a person can be absorbed, even twisted, by an idea. Bearing the scars of Nagasaki, Hiroko is history's witness, the eyes of humanity searching through the rubble of conflict, her family marked by her tragedy: "Hibakusha. It remained the most hated word in her vocabulary." Hiroko views her life, her grief, through the lens of that experience, a lifelong search for an answer. As time passes, the world grows smaller, from Japan and Nagasaki to India to Pakistan and New York, yet more complicated, more treacherous. Shamsie offers a compelling, disturbing reflection on a world that refuses to learn from the mistakes of the past, a heated response unleashed by fear, the human story writ large. Luan Gaines/2009.
The story spans 60 years and takes the reader to five different countries: Nagasaki, August 1945; Delhi 1947; Pakistan 1982-3; and New York/ Afghanistan 2001-2; and the connecting points for two families whose family members will have intimate knowledge of the destruction of war. It all starts in the morning of August 9, 1945 before the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and we are introduced to schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka and a man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss. Both are looking forward to the end of the war so that life gets back to normal and they can be wed. But history has other plans, and Hiroko whose language skills has her working for the Americans during the occupation. Unable to work closely with the "terrorists" who have invaded her country, she flees to Delphi to Konrad's sister. Hiroko is the one character that is present throughout the book and helps thread the book themes together.
This is an elegantly written story that allows the reader to understand how history affects our relationships with each other, Sometimes history defers relationships and others relationships survive despite the history. In each of the major parts of the book - there are historical events that are well known but what is not known is how it affects individuals who only want "to farm their land and raise their families." There are themes of sameness and otherness in different cultures and the issues that one can have when trying to be the same. This book shows how a terrorist is defined is dependent on whose face you are looking at based on your own individual history.
I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and world events. Readers of literary fiction will enjoy this poetic story with the universal themes of humanity and characters finding a way to bring satisfaction to their individual lives.
Reviewed by Beverly
May 6, 2009
Burnt Shadows reminded me of innocent comments I've heard from Americans such as, "It( dropping Atomic Bombs) had to be done to save American lives".
After the Iraq War started, I've heard the similar opinions. Burnt Shadows explains the frustration and anger I feel whenever those otherwise very kind and caring people express their deeper belief of their superiority and disregards towards other parts of world. What I really wanted to tell, but was too afraid to open my mouth was, "Iraq didn't attack USA. Many of the dead are civilians. They were somebody's mother, daughter, father, sons, grandmothers, grandfathers, and grandchildren. You can't tell a heart-broken mother, whose child's head was blown off in front of her, to stop crying and be grateful and happy because US took care of Sadam".
[...]Reviewer Carolyn See wrote, "Her argument is that the British and American empires, through their conscienceless colonialism (and particularly America's use of the bomb), are responsible for the very troubled world we live in today". But, I don't think Shamsie was accusing Britain and USA for the world's every trouble. She just wants them to look into their souls once in a while. At least, that's how I read.
I wouldn't say Burnt Shadows is the best novel I've ever read. It has some problems such as the color of birds on Kimono and Hiroko's words in the end. I wish the characters were emotionally more attractive. Having said that, Burnt Shadow is definitely one of the most ambitious and intellectual attempts to make a case for those who never had a chance (maybe too ambitious to be successful). Because of its' imperfection, I believe it will generate a better discussion. Therefore, I give 5 stars despite the flaw.
It will be a great book for your book club.
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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