Burnt Shadows

Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows. New York: Picador, 2009.

Reason read: Confessional: this was supposed to be read in August for a myriad of reasons: Shamsie’s birth month, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, and the anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. Somehow I missed it in August but wanted it read before 2021.

Burnt Shadows spans 56 years, from 1945 to 2001 moving from Nagasaki, Japan to Delhi, India to Pakistan and New York, all the while addressing the political geography of the time. India’s independence from British rule serves as a subtle character in Burnt Shadows as it changes the identity of others. At the heart of the story is the necessity of identity: human culture based on the desire to belong somewhere. Every character in Burnt Shadows struggles with a spiritual homelessness and drifting identity. Consider main protagonist Hiroko Tanaka: she fled Nagasaki, Japan after the bombing. Right before the attack she was engaged to a German, but ends up marrying an Indian she meets at the home of her deceased fiancĂ©’s sister in Delhi, India. A misunderstanding leads the couple to Pakistan where they have a son, Raza.
The story opens with the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka loses her fiancĂ© in the blast. How ironic is it she only agreed to marry him that same day? How tragic! In time she makes her way to India and lands on the doorstep of Konrad’s half sister, Elizabeth Burton and Elizabeth’s husband, James. Reluctantly, they take in Hiroko. Sajjad Ashraf, from the province of Dilli, works as a translator for James and Elizabeth Burton and agreed to tutor Hiroko. A beautiful relationship develops between them.
Burnt Shadows is also about the unspoken observation of marriage; the relationships that fail and those that stand the test of time “until death do us part.” Elizabeth and James had small, invisible cracks in their relationship before Hiroko arrived. Hiroko and Sajjad barely knew each other before their hasty marriage and yet it endured.
The last third of the book is difficult to read in that the story moves from one of interpersonal relationships to one of political unrest. The events of September 11th, 2001 play an enormous part in the narrative. It is as if Shamsie has another message, one that she has been waiting for 200 pages to deliver.

Quotes to quote, “There was no moment at which things went wrong, just a steady accumulation of hurt and misunderstanding” (p 109), “She felt she had been waiting all her life to arrive here” (p 295),

Author fact: Shamsie has ties to the Northeast, having gone to Hamilton College in New York and University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Burnt Shadows but it is the last book mentioned in the chapter.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Sojourns in South Asia: Pakistan” (p 212).