Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It is rare to encounter a novel that is both historical as well as acutely contemporary. Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows begins in Nagasaki in 1945, moves forward to India on the eve of British departure in 1947, then to Pakistan in 1982 and eventually to New York in 2001. The element linking these four geographic locations is Hiroko, a spirited and courageous Japanese woman with an incredible gift for languages and a sorrowful past.

The book has all the elements of a family saga but none of the tedious details which usually plague that genre. It is essentially the story of two families and how their lives intersect across fifty years of experience. Embedded inside that domestic narrative is a meditation on political violence and its effect on the individual and daily life. For many people political violence, or war, its most explicit form, is an abstract concept – something that occurs elsewhere. Burnt Shadows brings war and its hundreds of thousands of contingent ripples into a closer, personal focus.

Shamsie’s writing is also excellent. It has a strongly lyrical element – it’s clear Shamsie enjoys playing with language and rhythms – but it never goes too far, never trades a straightforward depiction of events for an impressionistic approach. And thankfully, because the book makes a lot of geographic jumps as well as shifts in point-of-view, the entire story is contained in a neat, airtight structure.

Aside from the writing, I think the reason I’m tempted to consider this book one of the best, if not the best read of 2009 is the way Shamsie builds toward her ending. There are several tragedies at work in this novel, the greatest of which is the ending, and when I finally realized a few pages from the end where Shamsie was heading, I was quite impressed. Part of me was screaming for her to change things, to make it work out differently, to wave her magic writer’s wand and make things better, but the rest of me was silently applauding her for forcing me to consider the truth contained in the book’s conclusion.


7 Responses to “Kamila Shamsie – Burnt Shadows”

  1. Smithereens

    I’ve never heard of this writer, but it sounds really intriguing! Thanks for pointing it out, I’ll search for this book at my library

  2. Lilian Nattel

    I’m glad she had the courage of her ending. I was disappointed with the happy ending of Snow Falling on Cedars (pulled out of a hat) even though I wanted it.

  3. Litlove

    Wow, that’s a big gold star you just put on this one. I will certainly check the author out – completely new to me.

  4. verbivore

    Smithereens – I hadn’t either, until someone in my book group suggested her. I have the sense that Burnt Shadows is her best work so far, but I’d like to check out the others all the same.

    Lilian – I like your comparison, especially since I just finished Guterson’s second novel East of the Mountains yesterday and I was thinking how it compared to Snow Falling on Cedars

    Litlove – I hope you like her, I really enjoyed the writing and the story (even if she went a teensy bit overboard on one or two occasions). I’ll be interested to see what you think.

  5. Biblibio

    Oh, but the tedious details are what make the family sagas so… tedious! Um… yes, I actually do like tedium in my epics. Hmm. But it’s hard to argue with the “best-of-year” angle. I’ll just have to get over it and enjoy conciseness.

  6. verbivore

    Dorothy – Can’t wait to hear what you think!

    Biblibio – Depends on the tedious details, I suppose. If I’m prepared to settle in with a big saga, I love ’em…otherwise, keep it clear and concise 🙂

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