Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

The Caustic Cover Critic recently had a brilliant post entitled “How to Make a Chinese or Japanese Book Cover”. The elements include dragons, fans, blossoms (preferably cherry), ninjas if you’ve got ’em, and so on. Obviously, these elements sell books or, I assume, they would not be so nearly ubiquitous on the covers of books relating, in some way, to China or Japan. As The Caustic Cover Critic noted, many of the covers are quite attractive despite the cliches.

Burnt Shadows opens in Nagasaki just before the city is demolished by an American atomic bomb on August 9, 1945. Kamila Shamsie was born in Pakistan; the novel’s main action takes place primarily in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. But it opens in Japan and Hiroko Tanaka is important throughout the remainder of the novel, so the publishers had their excuse.

Blossoms? Check. Fans? No, but a kimono serves the same purpose. Dragons? Not that I could find, but there are cranes. Female neck? Check. Amy Tan, Ha Jin, and Huraki Murakami (whose covers serve as examples for The Caustic Cover Critic’s post) would be proud to sport this cover on their next book. They might also be proud of the underlying novel. It is quite good.

Hiroko Tanaka is a Japanese woman with an enviable aptitude for learning languages. In 1945, she lives in Nagasaki and, despite being a teacher, works in a munitions factory. She has a close friendship with Konrad Weiss, a German-born man.

[Konrad] had believed the promise of the photographs and felt unaccustomedly grateful to his English brother-in-law James Burton who had told him weeks earlier that he was no longer welcome at the Burton home in Delhi with the words, “There’s property in Nagasaki. Belonged to George – an eccentric bachelor uncle of mine who died there a few months ago. Some Jap keeps sending me tlegrams asking what’s to be done with it. Why don’t you live there for awhile? As long as you like.” Konrad knew nothing about Nagasaki – except, to its credit, that it was not Europe and it was not where James and Ilse lived – and when he sailed into the harbour of the purple-roofed city laid out like an amphitheatre he felt he was entering a world of enchantment.

Konrad’s tendency to flee is a common trait of the book’s characters. The characters tend to be pushed more than pulled to new countries, but they almost all adopt their new homeland with passion. Of course, in 1945 Japan, Konrad Weiss is an outsider. Foreigners generally are suspect in wartime Japan and the Germans have surrendered, so the locals do not trust Konrad or anyone who associates too closely with him. Hiroko and her family are careful, but do not turn their backs on Konrad. Hiroko’s and Konrad’s friendship develops into romance.

[Konrad] picks up his pace, runs through memories of her: the gate through which she walked in search of him as soon as Yoshi’s nephew delivered the letter he had written, asking if she’d be interested in translating letters and diaries into German for a negotiable fee; Megane-Bashi, or Spectacles Bridge, where they had been standing, looking into the water, when a small silver fish leapt out of Konrad’s reflected chest and dived into her reflection and she said, “Oh,” and stepped back, almost losing her balance, so he had to put his arm around her waist to steady her.

Minutes before the atomic blast, the romance culminates in a marriage proposal. Their love affair, beautifully rendered by Shamsie, has consequences through several generations, culminating in another outsider being arrested in Canada as a suspected terrorist.

Kamila Shamsie has ambitiously attacked some very large political and moral issues while crafting a beautifully intimate novel. War, private security firms, racism, nationalism, history, and the war on terror all cross her sights. While her attempts on explicitly political targets are not wholly successful, she does manage to drive some important themes and ideas home. The successes are due to her ability to capture intimate personal scenes, not unlike the one I have quoted above. While ostensibly about Konrad Weiss, we learn a great deal about James Burton in that scene.

James is a very reserved and impeccably mannered Englishman. While he is a very respectable man and, for a stuffy Englishman who has internalized the social and class prejudices of his country, a good man, his failures of character are central to the book. Konrad’s move to Japan, for instance, was motivated and facilitated by James Burton. James Burton is more loyal to England and English ideas than to family or friends. James’s wife, Elizabeth, tries to adapt to his manner and values, she even changes her name from Ilse (Weiss, she is Konrad’s sister) to Elizabeth to erase her German connections. By the time we formally meet the couple, they have grown distant, even antagonistic.

Family connections are a central concern of this novel. The Weiss and Burton families are connected by marriage. Through Konrad’s proposal to Hiroko, the Tanaka family is connected as well. There is one more family, the Ashrafs, who play a prominent role.

James Burton is an attorney who practiced in Delhi, but has taken a break due to health issues. Sajjad Ashraf is James’s loyal and very bright assistant. Sajjad plans to become an attorney with the assistance of James Burton. By the time Sajjad enters the story, James has healed but still has not returned to work. This hampers Sajjad’s career plans, but he sticks it out, playing chess with James waiting for a return to law.

Hiroko Tanaka ends up in Bungle Oh!, a place just outside of Delhi, after the destruction of Nagasaki. Shamsie’s sure and subtle touch in illuminating the intricacies of relationships is on display when Hiroko goes out into the back yard for the first time.

Everything was colour, and the twittering of birds. It was like walking into the imagination of someone who has no other form of escape. So beautiful, and yet so bounded in. She sat down on the chair James had pulled out for her, and said yes, she would love some tea.

Whether the garden tells us something about the English, James, or Elizabeth is not immediately evident. A page later, we are inside Elizabeth’s head.

So much for those demure Japanese women of all the stories she’d heard. Here was one who would squeeze the sun in her fist if she ever 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 contrained life? She clicked her heels against the floor in impatience at herself. Virtue really had nothing to do with it.

Burnt Shadows is filled with these delightful little foreshadowings, intimate portraits of romances blooming and dying. Shamsie does human interactions exceedingly well. In a single paragraph, she can reveal lay a character bare, as here, where James and Hiroko are talking.

”Have you come from Nagasaki?” She seemed far too . . . whole, to belong in any of those photographs that he still didn’t see the point of publishing in magazines that people’s children might get their hands on. As eight-year-old Henry had. Daddy, did Uncle Konrad look like this when he died? the boy had said, pointing to something barely recognizable as human in a magazine that Elizabeth had stupidly brought into the house.

As I said, the novel is full of enchanting vignettes linked by supple prose. This novel is a success on many levels, but it is not perfect. The cast is relatively small and thoroughly known by the reader, so the surprises are not entirely surprising. The more political sections lack the same insight and punch of the warmly personal scenes. Post-9/11 politics are difficult, as evidenced by so many failures by prominent novelists, to handle without falling into banal sloganeering. Shamsie avoids that, but the end of the novel, where her characters speak in explicitly political terms, is the weakest of the whole.

Despite the relative weakness of the ending, the whole of the novel does make some moral and political points with penetrating grace. The structure of the narrative and the intricacies of the characters’ relationships work together to create an impressive whole. There is so much to appreciate about this novel, the shortcomings are forgivable. Even the cover.

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10 Responses to Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

  1. kimbofo says:

    Hahaha, re: the cover! My edition isn’t quite as predictable, although it does feature cranes: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Burnt-Shadows-Kamila-Shamsie/dp/1408804271/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265745022&sr=8-2

    As yet, I haven’t read this book, although I’ve heard loads of good things about it. Your review has made me bump it a little higher in the queue.

  2. This is a very perceptive review, that identifies accurately both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. I agree that Shamsie is at her best in exploring personal relationships and much less strong in the “political” aspects of the book — I too found the final pages disappointing. That said, I still think it is a worthwhile read.

    And I think the UK cover (which is the one that I have) is quite a bit better than the NA version.

  3. Kerry says:

    I will be looking forward to your own take. Plus, you should get it read sooner rather than later as it is a 2010 Tournament of Books entrant. If you read it, you will have a rooting interest (for or against) that always makes the TOB more enjoyable.

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    Thank you very much. I agree that it is a very worthwhile read. The weakness at the end is ameliorated somewhat by the faster pace. The pacing does not solve the narrative tidying (to paraphrase your own astute assessment early last year), but it does keep the pages turning.

    I agree completely about the cover. (See Kevin’s blog for shots of both).

    Thanks as always for the comment.

  5. Sarah says:

    I don’t know anything about this book, but I enjoyed your review, and the quotes give a flavour of a writing style which appeals.

    Loved your observations on the cover. I have to admit to a weakness for cherry blossom and dragons…

  6. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you. If I am the one to introduce you to it, that makes me pleased. I do think you would like it, based on what I know of your taste in literature. I would not say it is imperative that you read it, but it is definitely one of the better novels I have read from 2009.

    Just to boil down the plot to the barest essentials: The novel starts as a love story, provides some social satire, becomes family drama, then a political/military/spy thriller. It is remarkably fast-paced for having so many detailed observations of place and, more so, character.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. […] HW: “There is so much to appreciate about this novel, the shortcomings are forgivable.” […]

  8. It is a very worthwhile read.

  9. One of the phenomenal books I read.

    • Kerry says:

      I apologize if my delay in approving the comments resulted in a doubling. I am glad you enjoyed this work. I, obviously, found it very enjoyable as well.

      Just randomly, the two books that come to my mind as recommendations if you like this one are:

      The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

      and

      The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

      Thanks for stopping by and for the comment!

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