|Jul/Aug 2009 Book Reviews|
Bloomsbury. 2009. 367 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 7475 9813 8
Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky...
Right from the Prologue of Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie makes it clear that this book will have no happy endings. Yet it is a book full of love and life, humour and strength.
Hiroko is a likeable heroine and as we follow her though the event-filled fifty-seven years the book covers she matures into a strong, independent, resilient and loving woman. Yet, even before the bomb dropped and burned the embroidered birds of her kimono into her back, her life was shadowed. The earliest shadow is reflected from her father, who was branded a traitor by the local community for an act of protest against the glorification of a young man's death in war. On the day of the bomb, Hiroko feels the suspicion of the people around her in an air-raid shelter, those she has known as friends for many years, and so she leaves. Konrad Weiss's death on that day, too, throws a deep shadow over her life. Not just because of her grief for the man she loved and was going to marry, but because it sets in motion a chain of events which take her from Japan, to India, then to Pakistan and, eventually, to America. Each move brings her new joys and new sorrows.
Kamila Shamsie is a superb story-teller. The people in Burnt Shadows are human and believable, and she draws the reader into their lives in such a way that you warm to them and care about them. In some ways the lives of these fictitious characters are more real than the horrors of the non-fictional history they live through. It is hard to believe, for example, that sane human beings can perpetrate the acts which have led to the family divisions, bloodshed and trauma of Partition in India; the growing power and the influence on young Afghan boys of the mujahideen in Pakistan; the war in Afghanistan; the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York; the growing power of the CIA and private militia; Guantanamo Bay; and the resulting spread of xenophobia, religious fanaticism, and everyday suspicion of strangers who are not "like us." The lives of Hiroko and her family and close friends are influenced by all of these. And, as Hiroko's story moves into the present-day, Kamila Shamsie makes us aware of the way in which these things have changed all our lives, prompting, especially, the suspicion of strangers, the resulting spread of surveillance and the erosion of individual rights.
Yet in spite of its thought-provoking portrayal of recent history and the frightening, unresolved, seemingly unresolvable situation with which the book ends, there is nothing polemic about it. There are good times as well as bad. For long periods, as one section heading suggests, the shadows are veiled and the book celebrates comfortable, loving, family relationships. Hiroko faces the worst that can happen and, as she did at Nagasaki, she survives—because she has to, and because, as she says at the end of the book "the world goes on." And the shadows, for all of us, are always there.
Burnt Shadows, like the two fragments of poetry which Shamsie chose to set at the front of her book, is an elegy for all that the earth has lost and is still losing. But it is also a powerful and moving story.