Never underestimate the wonders of airport bookshops. I came across this month’s Book of the Month completely by chance when I was changing flights in Dubai airport (and had about 4 boring hours to spare because I had finished the book I had taken with me). I get through books far too quickly…
Obviously, the cover was one of the first things that caught my attention. A woman in a kimono… Perfect for a Japan blog!
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes with the sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi two years later. There she walks into the lives of Konrad’s half-sister, Elizabeth, her husband James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu. As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts.
But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of the Burtons, Ashrafs and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound them together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences. Sweeping in its scope and mesmerising in its evocation of time and place, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of disasters evaded and confronted, loyalties offered and repaid, and loves rewarded and betrayed.
I thoroughly enjoyed Burnt Shadows because it was such an emotional rollercoaster to read and the story was complex. The story follows the lives of one family and travels from the tragedy of Nagasaki, to India, to Pakistan and, finally, to New York. I really do not want to give much about the story because I am an advocate of opening a novel not really knowing what to expect. There’s nothing worse than spoilers or even not-so-subtle hints when it comes to book reviews, and I am by no means subtle.
I will go so far as to say that themes of identity and culture were the strongest aspects of Burnt Shadows. Whichever country the characters are living in, they clearly never feel truly ‘at home’ and are unable to identify purely as Japanese, Indian, Pakistani, Muslim. Although the story is linear, it is certainly complex and powerful.
Unlike previous Books of the Month, Burnt Shadows is not entirely or at least mostly set in Japan. Burnt Shadows keeps the reader moving about and they are never allowed to settle for too long before one tragedy or another forces them to relocate.I knew very little about India and Pakistan’s history, so it was brilliant to discover a historical novel that not only looked at more than one country’s history but several decade’s-worth of twentieth century history.
Without a doubt, I would recommend Burnt Shadows to anyone who loves reading. It is one of the most unique novels I have come across in a long time and I urge you to go out and get your own copy as soon as possible.