Monday, June 22, 2009

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie - 384 pages

Book Cover Hiroko Tanaka's life has been irrevocably marred by the American bombing of Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. Not only did she lose her father, village, and way of life, but also the young German artist Konrad, with whom she was beginning a relationship. After the kimono she was wearing in the blast becomes fused with her skin, she bears scars shaped like birds across her back. It is with these painful scars and memories that she leaves Japan, unable to find her place in society after the war. Hiroko travels to New Delhi, where she meets Konrad's half-sister Ilse and her husband James, who agree to shelter her in honor of Konrad's memory. James employs an ersatz assistant, Sajjad, who is in reality only there to provide him amusement and company. When Hiroko and Sajjad begin to have feelings for each other, a set of events occurs that enmesh two families through the generations and take them across the ocean from India to Pakistan to America. Along the way they face the realities of the Partition of India, the nuclear threats of Pakistan, and the more modern struggle of terrorism in America. Fraught with the themes of cultural alienation and identity, Burnt Shadows gives an account of those whose lives are built despite and amidst the destruction of war.

The story was definitely powerful and emotional, but there was a lot there to digest. At times I think that the author overreached in portraying this story, with too many elements in close quarters. I understand that this story was meant to capture a large span of time and encompass several important cultural themes and events, but at times it felt like there were too many balls in the air at once.

The story and message in this book prompted me to put a human face to the complications that arise during war, not only governmental, but socially and personally. The moral and personal struggles of the characters as a whole were much more complex and at times more ambiguous than in any other novel I had read previously about war and it's impacts; at times, even my own opinions were muddy about certain aspects. Many of themes and conversations of this book revolved around the characters' feelings for their homeland, prior to and during war. Some things seemed very black and white while others were clothed in subtle shades of gray. In a way, the book shattered a lot of the preconceived notions that I had, not only about political hostilities, but about the effect they have on the future generations. When Hiroko and Sajeed's young son decides to get involved with a group of young Afghans who are training for guerrilla combat, it was hard for me to find an acceptable position to take. Was I to feel upset that the boy had flown into the arms of terrorism, or was I to understand that this was only a misguided attempt to find acceptance with a group of men who seemingly idolized him?

Some of the things I found interesting were not only the larger issues of cultural identity and societal belonging, but the smaller and finer character motivations and interactions that filled the pages. I think it would be too simple to focus on these things though. The issues that the book presents are meant to be much more oblique and all-encompassing than that, so I will just say that the variegated relationships, tensions, and conversations that these characters were embroiled in were both impressive and authentic. They lent a depth to the story that made it more interesting. The characters in this book inspired reaction, and whether it was frustration, anger or sympathy, I found myself being much more involved with them then I have with other characters while reading similar books.

The latter half of the book examines terrorism in a manner that I found compelling, and essentially gave several differing viewpoints of the issue from both the accused and the accuser. This was done in a manner I had not been expecting or familiar with and gave me even more to think about. The conclusion of the book left me stunned. I think that the author really did more to leave me embroiled and impassioned in the last few pages of the book then anywhere else. I wanted there to be a happy ending, but like life, the reality is that things sometimes end messily.

As I have said before, this is a book that made me do some deep thinking. Its story, characterization, and ultimately, its conclusion were multi-faceted and elaborate and I appreciated both the scope and density of the story that was told. I think this book definitely had a statement to make, on many levels, and it succeeded in a way that went beyond the boundaries of earnest storytelling. It was both a plausible and affecting read, and one that I ended up enjoying. Aside from the cluttered manner of the plot, I think that readers of historical fiction would really enjoy the wide range in this book, and those that like books that are character driven would also get a lot out of it.


Meghan said...

Great review! My book club will be reading this in a couple of months and I'm really looking forward to it. From your review, it looks like we'll have a lot to discuss. =)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Great review. I thought this one was pretty good as well.

Marie Cloutier said...

Great review. THis is one I really want to read. I missed out on the ARC mailing but hope to pick it up soon.

Booklogged said...

Wow, you write great reviews. I love your use of language and how well you express yourself. I've adopted oblique as my word of the day. It's not new, but I don't use and now I'm going to.

Elizabeth said...

I'm right in the middle of this one, and so far enjoying it. I understand what you mean about the author maybe trying to do TOO much - I'm interested to see where she goes.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

I just skimmed your review, because I'll be reading it for a discussion group this fall. I tend to enjoy books published by this imprint ... will let you know in a few months!

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