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.