Burnt Shadows is Kamila Shamsie‘s fifth novel and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. Shamsie is a Pakistani novelist who now lives in the UK.
The book is a story of two families whose lives have been inter-twined over the years and has spanned four countries – Japan, India, Pakistan and the US. It’s a story of the atrocities of war, nuclear bombs, love, friendships, mis-trust and betrayal.
Hiroko Tanaka, a Japanese woman living in Nagasaki, is the main character of this book. Most of the book revolves around her life, and begins with the atomic bomb that killed her German fiance and left her with burnt scars of black cranes on the back – the imprint of the silk kimono she happened to be wearing when the bomb fell.
Unable to continue living in Japan, Hiroko travels to Delhi, to meet Ilse, who is her dead fiance’s half sister. Much against the wishes of her English husband, James Burton, who is portrayed as a slimy lawyer working for the crumbing British Raj in India, she invites Hiroko to stay with them at their ‘Bungle Oh’! Despite the inhibitions and the cultural differences, both women forge a friendship that lasts through their lifetimes, bringing happiness at times and great loss, at others.
It is at this house that Hiroko meets Sajjad Ashraf, a Muslim man whose aspirations of becoming a lawyer, are falsely encouraged by James Burton. Hiroko and Sajjad get married and at the behest of James, flee to Istanbul to avoid being massacred in the Hindu-Muslim riots that engulfed India during the time of Partition in 1947. Although the intentions were good, Sajjad never forgave James for this act because as a Muslim who fled India, he was never allowed to return, being forever branded as a Pakistani.
The story then moves to Pakistan, where Hiroku and Sajjad have managed to create a life for themselves and their son Raza. It is here that Henry (or Harry Burton), Ilse and James’s son, makes contact with the family and gives Raza false hopes about studying in the US. The saga continues with a dejected Raza finding solace in the company of Afghans, and infiltrating a mujahideen camp in Afghanistan, during the height of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This naive act leads to a huge personal tragedy, for which Raza will never be able to forgive himself and for which Hiroko will hold Harry responsible.
The story then shifts to the US, where Hiroku joins Ilse to spend the remaining years of her life, having left Pakistan after Indian and Pakistan came to the brink of a nuclear war. Meanwhile, Raza and Harry were back in Afghanistan, working for a private security company.
Using historical landmarks – Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, India’s partition, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11 attacks in New York, Shamsie captures and portrays the huge losses, both mental, physical and psychological, suffered by mankind, through small personal looses of the Weiss-Burtons and Tanaka-Ashrafs. Although Shamsie tries to include too many events that seem to dictate the lives of her characters, there is sometimes, too little involvement. having said that, the book is a great read and should not be missed.