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“Even Loneliness Will Burn”: A Review of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
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 In the last eight years we’ve seen the rise of a new mini-genre, which I will call the early 21st-century post-terrorism novel (in the US it’s most often labeled the post-9/11 novel), and—let’s be honest here—most of them are terrible.

Even otherwise reliable authors tend to fall short in this arena, whether addressing the immediate after-effects of the 9/11 attacks on Americans of color (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Queen of Dreams) or white American divided by their stances on the wars that followed (Jane Hamilton’s When Madeleine Was Young). I very much enjoyed Ali Smith’s The Accidental, but “the war” in her book is a only constant background noise that her white British characters steadfastly ignore. (This is probably her point, but…um, it means book replicates the same mistake.)

In fact, the best entry in the genre I’ve read has been a sci-fi novel only thematically connected to recent events. Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North (originally published in the UK under the much more appropriate title The Carhullan Army) addresses government oppression, the vulnerability of women’s concerns in national crisis, US global dominance, and the question “What makes someone a terrorist?” (both in the sense of why we use the term, and how someone comes to commit acts of terror) in novel and powerful ways. For years it has been the only fiction that grapples with the global political winds of the early 21st century that I can honestly call excellent.

But now I have to make room on my shelf, because Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows deserves to join Hall on that very short list. Shamsie is a Pakistani novelist writing in English who won a great deal of acclaim for her third novel, Kartography. Her fifth one begins in Nagasaki a few hours before American forces dropped the second atomic bomb, with the sweetly affecting romance of Hiroko Tanaka, a Japanese language teacher whose father is a war resister, and Konrad Weiss, a German writer. Only Hiroko survives, but the novel traces the intertwined paths of their two families for the next sixty years.

Hiroko, a vibrant and unconventional woman, tracks down Konrad’s sister and her English colonist husband, James Burton, in Dilli or Delhi, India on the eve of Partition. There she falls in love with and ultimately marries Sajjad, a Muslim servant to the family. The plot is full of twists that I will not spoil, but all of these characters and their children interact in surprising ways as the story moves forward through Partition to the 1980s, when the Afghan war against the Soviets spills over in the Pakistan, and then to the wake of the September 11th attacks in both New York & Afghanistan.

A novel with this scope is incredibly ambitious, but Shamsie succeeds, in large part because her characters—particularly Hiroko, Sajjad, Konrad’s sister Ilse or Elizabeth, and the latter’s son Harry Burton—are so well drawn. They are real, flesh-and-blood people, with particular paths and histories—and yet they are also small players in a global drama of power, colonialism, war, and influence. Shamsie is amazingly astute about the ways personal relationships can overcome political and national divides, and yet be complicated or compromised by lingering differences in power.

Elizabeth Burton, for instance, effaces all traces of her German ethnicity to become a proper English colonial wife, but cannot entirely shake the effects of her heritage. Hiroko builds close relationships with Weisses and Burtons, but the fact that she knows, in intimate detail, the true horror of being on the receiving end of a powerful nation’s political calculations creates a distance within those bonds. (The title of this post comes from the book’s epigraph, which implicitly remarks on Hiroko’s experience of the bomb.)

It’s rare to find any author who can so skillfully limn the thoughts of both those with global colonial privilege and those who suffer its effects. A conversation late in the book between American Kim Burton—whose mixture of liberal guilt and prejudice Shamsie brings memorably to life—and an illegal Afghan immigrant, in which both repeatedly misunderstand and offend each other, is a masterful set-piece in exploring two points-of-view simultaneously.

In fact, Shamsie is deeply interested in cultural mixture, and many of her characters are multiethnic and multilingual, though none feels it more than Hiroko and Sajjad’s son, Raza, whose Japanese, Indian, and Turkish ancestry enables him to pass as a Hazara Afghani, with unexpected effects. While the book’s complex plot does sometimes rely on coincidence, particularly in the post-9/11 section, Shamsie does succeed in putting 21st-century terrorism in context with other human-made disasters like the bombing of Nagasaki and Partition.

Because Picador, Shamsie’s American publisher, decided to issue the book as a paperback original, it hasn’t received the review coverage given to a hardcover. I’m hoping to make up for it by reviewing it here; I highly recommend it.

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Thank you for that review -- it sounds excellent, and I'll definitely add it to the "to read" list.

Thanks for the review-- it does sound excellent. I will remember it for future reading.

Also, your review made me LOL, because I know a James Burton. Yet another reason to read the book!

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