Books July 2014

Identity in the face of crises


Book follows heroine through Nagasaki, 9-11 and Afghanistan

Sometimes the old adage about not judging a book by its cover is categorically proven to be untrue. The cover artwork for Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, sets both a mood and an expectation for its readers.

It invites them to understand that this is a book which takes place, at least at the start, in Japan. But it is so much more than that.

It begins in 1945 Nagasaki, with the heroine, Hiroko Tanaka, watching her lover Konrad walk away into what they both assume will be just another day:

“Nagasaki is more beautiful to her than ever before. She turns her head and sees the spires of Urakami Cathedral, which Konrad is looking up at when he notices a gap open between the clouds. Sunlight streams through, pushing the clouds apart even further. Hiroko. And then the world goes white”.

There are other days beyond this 9 August scene; plenty of them at that. But none will ever be ordinary again. Hiroko’s extraordinary journey from the devastation of Nagasaki and the scars she will carry for the rest of her days—reference here the title of the novel—is breathtaking in its scope.

Shamsie, a Pakistan-born writer who now lives in Britain, brings her remarkable powers of observation and her obviously deep compassion to tell a story that is all about love and war and everything that embraces. The impressive volume covers three generations and three world-changing events.

From Hiroko’s shocking experience in Nagasaki, the book follows her through Delhi at the time of India’s fight for independence from British colonialism—including her experience of the partition of the British Indian empire into modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

The story then moves to post-9/11 New York City, and arrives at a surprising and violent climax in Afghanistan.

It is above all a novel about identity, about what we each of us might do when faced with decisions of unimaginable consequence. It is brilliantly populated with characters who are drawn with such care, precision and honesty that the reader is left feeling that he knows them.

Hiroko, her husband Sajjad, and their son Raza are brilliantly brought to life, and they stay in the memory long after the final pages have been reached.

Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and was the 2010 winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards prize.