Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie [A Review]

Burnt Shadows is an immensely ambitious novel by Kamila Shamsie. It’s narrative moves with its characters from war time Japan, to pre-Partition India, to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to New York after September 11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. As you can imagine, tragedy in this story cannot be avoided. Still, it manages to carry this ambition with a style that is fluid and elusive and plot that builds in tension while the reader fears for the characters’ fate.

Hiroko Tanaka has had the misfortune of experiencing the pain of some of the twentieth century’s most horrific man-made tragedies. As a young woman in Japan during WWII, she saw the impact on her own life of the rapid change in Japan’s war fortunes. Where once she had worked as a school teacher, she has been dismissed from her job because her father was outspoken against the war, and must now spend her days in a munitions factory. Where once she could associate with her German lover, Konrad, more or less openly, they must now be discrete following Germany’s defeat as he is now viewed with suspicion.

One day, as she enjoys a moment of contentment in her apartment, wearing her mother’s luxurious kimono, everything changes in an instant as an atomic bomb drops on Nagasaki. Almost everyone she knows is instantly killed, including Konrad, and the design of three black cranes on the rear of her kimono are burned into her back, scarring her for life.

A little less than two years later, Hiroko decides to travel to Delhi, India, to seek out Konrad’s half-sister Elizabeth. Though it is a slightly awkward and unusual meeting, she is soon a welcome guest in the home of Elizabeth and James Burton. Elizabeth feels she could use a female friend around especially given the guilt she feels about her distance from her now dead step-brother and for sending her young son, Harry, to a boarding school in England against his wishes. She certainly does not enjoy the benefit of companionship that she might have hoped marriage to provide.

Hiroko is not the only person to enter the Burton’s lives without invitation. When Konrad had previously visited he had introduced them to Sajjad Ali Ashraf. A local who can proudly trace his descent to Turks who invaded India with the Mamluk’s seven centuries earlier, Sajjad becomes a member of the household, somewhat above the ranks of other servants, regularly playing chess with James. Sajjad has a profound love for his home and he can’t imagine that the threat of Indian Independence, Partition and the founding of Pakistan will change much for him and his fellow Muslims in his beloved Dilli.

The upheaval and violence that erupts with Independence, though, means that Sajjad will experience the loss of home that Hiroko did in Nagasaki. For Hiroko it is a second home lost with no obvious path back nor forward.

‘So I’ve never seen you in your true world?’

‘No, you haven’t.’ He lifted a hand into the space between them. ‘And I’ve never seen you in yours.’

‘Mine doesn’t exist anymore.’

‘Neither does mine. […] This Pakistan, it’s taking my friends, my sister, it’s taking the familiarity from the streets of Dilli. Thousands are leaving, thousands more will leave. What am I holding on to? Just kite-strings attached to air at either end.’

Burnt Shadows has a very fluid style and it was difficult for me to pin down what it was about, like trying to reach for smoke in the air. Whenever I began to think I knew what the story was about, the story would move on and become something else.

At this point in the novel, I felt it was about the artificial barriers humans construct – war, race, religion, nationality, socioeconomic class, etc – that makes it too easy to prejudge and prevents us from seeing and treating others as equal humans. Konrad and Elizabeth are step-siblings and, though they were never close, the war has estranged them further; Elizabeth has shunned her German side and embraced Englishness – going by ‘Elizabeth’ instead of ‘Ilse’ – while Konrad can’t help but be German and was an awkward guest in British India when he visited his step-sister.

In Japan, Konrad researches but never writes his book on Nagasaki’s once great cosmopolitanism because it has ceased to exist. The care Konrad and Hiroko must take to be discreet about their relationship is due to the artificial barrier put up by Germany’s defeat. Sajjad is treated somewhat above the rank of a servant in the Burton house but, perhaps because of race or social class or just because he is an employee, he can never be a true friend or equal.

Last evening, when James Burton had whispered, ‘Tomorrow morning we’re all going to see Sajjad’s Delhi,’ she had felt her face stretch into a smile that didn’t seem possible. His world wasn’t closed to outsiders! The Burtons weren’t entirely resistant to entering an India outside the Raj! And she, Hiroko Tanaka, was the one to show both Sajjad and the Burtons that there was no need to imagine such walls between their worlds. Konrad had been right to say barriers were made of metal that could turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side.

I also thought the novel was about the loss of home with no going back. Hiroko loses Nagasaki, Sajjad loses Dilli and Harry – the Burton’s son – loses India. And it is not to say that the story is not about these things but the story is constantly shifting. As soon as you notice a pattern that commends a theme, the story moves on and seems to become something else.

From the dislocation of Partition in 1947 the reader is transported to Pakistan, to the 1980’s and to the next generation of the Ashraf and Burton families. Raza, Sajjad’s son, is finishing high-school. A high-achieving student, he is expected to ace his exams, to go to university, to become the lawyer his father had hoped to be. Yet something, unnameable to Raza, is weighing upon him. Perhaps it is the imprisonment of having his life planned out for him, the pressure of expectations or just the temptation to indulge in a little escapism.

It is a dangerous time for a young man in Pakistan to be distracted. The Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan has brought a tide of refugees, extremists and freedom fighters. American aid and weapons are also flowing in and heading towards the border and Islamism and religious restrictions are noticeably growing. A little teenage rebellion, however mild, might prove to have dangerous consequences.

Events also reunite the Ashraf and Burton families. Harry Burton, who, in the end, grew up in New York, pays the Ashraf’s a surprise visit. He works at the American Consulate in Islamabad, but like any American in Pakistan, is suspected by locals of being CIA. Harry’s presence brings with it new hope, new dangers and reminders of old wounds.

With the focus shifted to the next generation of these two families and a future that includes 9-11 and the war on terror, Burnt Shadows becomes something very different to what was promised in the first half. The tension tightens, the story accelerates and fear meets tragedy. Life-long friendships and loyalties are stretched and torn as those artificial barriers, post 9-11, prove too easy to stop short of.

A few minutes later, Raza was sitting beneath the tree, satphone by his side. This country, this country. He looked up into the distant hills – already darkened into silhouettes in the early part of the long winter night – memory rather than sight providing him with images of coloured strips of cloth tied to the ends of long poles. Some bleached to whiteness, some bright as fresh blood, each marking the burial place of those who had died in some version of the war which had rolled across Afghanistan for over twenty years. Raza thought he was one of the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world whose conscience had been buried in Afghanistan – his reaction had been to decide if he was numbered among the damned he might as well get paid for it. But here was his conscience, tapping him on the shoulder, offering him one more chance.

I have a minor quibble about this novel, and I stress that it is only minor but I would like to use it to make a more general point, and that is that at key moments the novel lacks a certain subtlety. I like the inter-relatedness of literature or for that matter all popular culture. I like that novels inspire other novels both in sympathy or in contrast. I admit I feel a little clever when I spot a parallel and a little foolish when I miss one. But I think they ought to be left implicit and undisclosed.

Burnt Shadows, I feel, is full of allusions to other works but it is not always left unsaid. When the setting is in Delhi and the characters are picnicking at what is now the Qutb Complex of ruins, and there is growing closeness between Sajjad and Hiroko, witnessed by a misunderstanding Elizabeth, I was naturally put to mind of EM Forster’s A Passage to India. Except that it had already been mentioned in the text.

‘Yes,’ Elizabeth said, with a lift of her chin. ‘One day you’ll see that I acted in your best interests.’ She caught hold of Hiroko’s hand. ‘His is a world you either grow up in or to which you remain for ever an outsider. And maybe he’d give up that world for you – if that’s what it took to have you in his life – but when that first intensity of passion passed, he’d regret it, and he’d blame you.

When the setting moves to 1980’s Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and an American Harry, whose purpose there is unclear, returns to the story to make the acquaintance of Raza, I of course thought of Kipling’s Kim. A character named Kim even enters the story. And soon enough, Kim is mentioned. Perhaps Shamsie, conscious that these allusions may have been too clear, wished to defuse their apparentness by disclosing them.

As well as disclosing allusions, Shamsie also discloses her theme. As I said, the constant evolution of the story makes it difficult, in a pleasant way, to know what it is about. Unfortunately at the end of the novel, Shamsie, via a conversation between two characters, more or less gives the reader a theme, perhaps the theme, of the novel. I didn’t like that. I don’t want to be too critical here. These are minor annoyances in an otherwise fine novel. A very ambitious novel, that for the most part achieves its ambitions. At times, though, it could use more subtlety.

There are perhaps many more references to other works in Burnt Shadows that went unsaid. The title for the final section of the novel comes from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and Shamsie, who has spoken of her admiration for the novel previously, was recently the judge who chose The English Patient as the best Booker Prize winner of the 1990’s as it went on to win the Golden Booker Prize. There is also the flawed marriage of James and Elizabeth Burton which reminded me of Tusker and Lucy Smalley from Paul Scott’s Staying On. Perhaps if the Burtons had chosen to stay in India, they would have ended up like the Smalleys.

The final chapter’s escalating tension and the uncertainty about the characters and their motives in the new age of the War on Terror, reminded me a little of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was published two years earlier. In those final chapters the distance and contrast yet proximity of New York and Afghanistan, and of two men who made different choices in their lives, brings to mind A Tale of Two Cities.

Minor quibbles aside I found Burnt Shadows to be an excellent and enigmatic novel. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Women’s Prize and, if this is the standard for those in contention that year, then I have high expectations for the other nominees, and the winner – Home by Marilyn Robinson – that I plan to read. My expectations for Shamsie’s other work have also gone up after this first taste. I have one of her later novels, A God in Every Stone, which I will probably read next, but no doubt I will also read Home Fire which just won the 2018 Women’s Prize.


    • It is a difficult book. Fortunately, if you enjoyed the themes, there is not shortage of post-colonial south-Asian novels to enjoy! Thanks for your comment


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.