Sunday, July 19, 2009

TSS - Review - Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

published 4/09
384 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Beginning on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, and ending in a prison cell in the US in 2002, as a man is waiting to be sent to Guantanamo Bay, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of love and betrayal.

Hiroko Tanaka is twenty-one and in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, her world is suddenly and irrevocably altered. In the numbing aftermath of the atomic bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, two years later, Hiroko travels to Delhi. It is there that her life will become intertwined with that of Konrad's half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu.

With the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan, Hiroko will find herself displaced once again, in a world where old wars are replaced by new conflicts. But the shadows of history--personal and political--are cast over the interrelated worlds of the Burtons, the Ashrafs, and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York and, in the novel's astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound these families together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.

My thoughts:

This was a very good novel that was ALMOST a great novel - but just missed it by a hair.

I loved the first two sections of this book. In part 1, The Yet-Unknowing World, we meet Hiroko and Konrad, and explore with them their burgeoning love. They are both outsiders - he a German, she a woman whose father is branded a traitor. People avoid them on the street, chose not to speak to them, and yet they find each other. Konrad tells Hiroko it might be better for her to distance herself from him, but she chooses not to. Their future is bright. Shamsie paints such a vivid picture of these two characters, who are both strong and yet vulnerable. And then comes the first tragedy.

"Functional, Hiroko Tanaka thinks, as she stands on the porch of her house in Urakami and surveys the terraced slopes, the still morning alive with the whirring of cicadas. If there were an adjective to best describe how the war has changed Nagasaki, she decides, that would be it. Everything distilled or distorted into its most functional form. She walked past the vegetable patches on the slopes a few days ago and saw the earth itself furrowing in mystification: why potatoes where once there were azaleas? What prompted this falling-off of love? 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."

Part 2, Veiled Birds, finds Hiroko traveling to India to meet Konrad's family, and try to salvage a life for herself. Once again, Shamsie's characters are vivid and alive, and her writing beautifully descriptive of the locations and mindset of the people of the time. Her portrait of the marriage of Elizabeth, Konrad's sister, and her husband James is penetrating, a perfect snapshot of a couple forgetting why they loved each other. And then the second tragedy comes.

"Elizabeth almost laughed. So much for the demure Japanese women of all the stories she'd heard. Here was one who would squeeze the sun in her fist if she every got the chance; yes, and tilt her head back to swallow its liquid light. At what point, Elizabeth wondered, had she started to believe there was virtue in living a constrained life? She clicked her heels against the floor in impatience at herself. Virtue really had nothing to do with it."

In Part 3, Part-Angel Warriors, Hiroko and her husband are living in Pakistan with their son, Raza. In a section that brims with life, Raza stumbles upon a group of militant Afghanis while trying to appease his father. As he comes to identify more and more with this group, Shamsie lets readers in on the ease at which a basically good boy can become a terrorist. I found this section to be especially fascinating, with its themes of family love and loyalty, the desire to find a place to belong, and the quickness with which situations can spiral out of control. And then, of course, the third tragedy.

"Stay. Stay. Stay. She should have repeated it like a madwoman, banged her head against the wall in a frenzy, hit him and wept. She should have said it just one more time, just a little more forcefully. She should have taken his dear, sweet head in her hands and kissed his eyes and forehead. Stay."

It was the fourth section that I felt was lacking. It takes place in America and the Middle East after the events of 9/11/01, and the connection I had felt to the characters up until this point wasn't maintained. Hiroko appears less in this section than any of the others, and it could have been that I missed her presence. But more than that, I just felt like the story lost its focus, and didn't have the emotional impact the author was intending. It does, inevitable, contain another tragedy, this one the most unnecessary of them all.

This is the first novel I have read by this author, and I will certainly be looking for more of her work. While the ending did lose me a bit, the overall story was compelling and beautifully written, and I do recommend the novel.

Finished: 6/24/09
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers program
Rating: 8/10

Don't just take my word for it! Here's what some other fabulous bloggers had to say:

Bibliophile by the Sea
Raging Bibliomania

This book counts toward:


Gavin said...

I have been curious about this book. I am now going to add it to my ever growing "to be read" list. Thanks for a great review.

Diane said...

Great review; I'm glad you enjoyed it.

bermudaonion said...

I'm glad to see the book's good, if not great, since my book club will be reading it in September.

Meghan said...

I'm glad that you thought it was at least good! I have it for review and my book club is reading it in September, so it's not too far away for me.

Anonymous said...

I saw this novel in the bookstore yesterday but didn't pick it up bcoz I had read mixed reviews on this one. But looks like I should have. Nice review Elizabeth.

Beth F said...

(is there an echo in this room?) I'm glad you liked this one because my book club is reading it for September.

Zibilee said...

You managed to put your finger right on my feelings to this book. While I did enjoy it very much, I felt as though there might have been a bit too much tragedy running through the story, and much of that feeling was based on the last section of the book. I felt as though that section could have been a bit reworked, it was clunky and gave the feeling that the storyline was just too tightly packed. I also had a hard time with the ending of the book. It seemed so shocking to me, and I just couldn't wrap my head around it emotionally. By the way, Great review!

Holly said...

Terrific review. This one looks interesting.

Serena said...

i would love to read this book. I'll have to check out the library to see if they have it.

Great review, very thorough!