Friday, October 26, 2018

Book Review: 'Burnt Shadows: A Novel' by Kamila Shamsie

Review by Susan Gardner
Burnt Shadows: A Novel 
By Kamila Shamsie 
May 2009 
384 pp 
Picador, Trade Paperback Original
This intricately layered novel spans three generations and several continents, highlighting the ways in which political decisions and imperial ambitions impact personal choices and lives, and how -- to put a fatalist spin on what turns out to be a determinedly optimistic book -- we are all history's playthings in the end.

The novel opens on a morning in 1945 in Nagasaki, when young Hiroko bids farewell to her British lover, Konrad. The day, as one can predict from being alerted to the time and place of the setting, does not go well. From the horrific opening, we follow Hiroko for decades, as she shows up in India and winds up in Pakistan, picking up a husband and in-laws along the way. Her knowledge of humankind and the world grows as she does, and some of the most touching passages in the novel are her reflections about individual destinies, how they shape character, and what the role of our society is in making us who we are. In reflecting on Konrad's family impending departing India in preparation for independence, Hiroko reflects:
A year or two, no more, James had told her, and then the British would go. It seemed the most extraordinary privilege--to have forewarning of a swerve in history, to prepare for how your life would curve around that bend.
Such simple yet deep insights about culture and its effects abound in the book.
The story also follows Konrad's British family as members move to America, return to Britain after India's independence, and return in various capacities to the hotbed of insurgency in the Afghan/Pakistan region.
Throughout the sweep of political tides, as relationships and connections are made, get broken, are renewed or severed, the cast of characters expands and are superbly woven in to the fabric of this beautifully written novel. Shamsie is a lyrical writer, with a keen eye for detail and a poignant way of phrasing every-day observations that feel new when she voices them.
War. Colonialism. Romance. Class issues. Tragedy. The seduction of religious extremism. The pull of secularism. Burnt Shadows has it all, with glimpses of what it's like to be a cosmopolitan Japanese woman living with the scars of one of the Second World War's World most shameful moments on her back, or -- as we experience in the final scenes -- a misunderstood Muslim captured in Canada, beginning the long journey to Gitmo.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.