Book Review: Kamila Shamsie – Burnt Shadows

Heidi Aho 9 June 2009

If we are all tied in a cave and reality is but shadows, then thankfully some take the shape of novels that are actually worth reading. Burnt Shadows is one such mirage, where Kamila Shamsie tells, with skill and confidence, a story that spans the globe and the 20th century. Encompassed in it are the past realities and present threat of nuclear warfare, the final sighs of the British Empire and the dawn of America’s political ubiquity, four love stories, and myriad deaths. At times Shamsie’s characters falter, unintentionally and annoyingly, in overly introspective dialogue. But occasional slipshod personalities are fully compensated for by the author’s expert sense of time and space, as she shines a peculiar light on historical events that time has soaked in apathy, and raises them to new significance.

Her story begins in Nagasaki, gleaming with personal happiness, as Hiroko, a twenty-one year old linguist, watches her fiancé walk away from her, expecting him to return in the evening to meet her father. But then reality explodes and Hiroko is left with nothing but three black scars branded on her back. She leaves Japan for Delhi to seek refuge in the household of her fiancé’s sister, Mrs. Burton, and it is here, in India moments before the partition, that Shamsie begins to knit together the relationship between the two families on which her story hangs. For Hiroko falls in love with Sajjad, an employee in the Burton household and they have a son, who grows up in a world so deaf to the individual that even childhood hopes can be mistaken for religious fundamentalism.

Kamila Shamsie thwarts expectations of a neat conclusion. Given the book’s moral and political commentary, maybe she had no choice but to end her book in painful irresolution, for where do happy endings fit in a world rife with injustice? Alternatively, she could be seen as taking the easy way out, revelling in the mire of conflict rather than creating some shades of peace—a possibility that doesn’t seem entirely impossible given Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay. From what I’ve gathered, people don’t read novels during Easter Term. But if you do have the time for something other than studying and random entertainment, Burnt Shadows would be worth your while.

Heidi Aho