Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury, 2009) ISBN: 978 1 4088 0087 4 14
If you’d like to (I’m not your real mom, I can’t make you), this video I’ve attached seems thematically appropriate. The song, a cover of Wishful Thinking’s Hiroshima by German band Puhdys–though it is of course about the wrong city–ran through my head a number of times as I read Burnt Shadows. Because this book is, amongst other things, about a nuclear world, the Cold War, and the constant two minutes to midnight. I’ve provided an original, literal and probably poor translation of the German lyrics, which are themselves a more poetic translation of the original English lyrics, below the video.
Only a shadow remains of him*, in Hiroshima
Silent as fire
But nobody knows, in Hiroshima,
Stone becomes a scream.
And it cries, “Remember well,
Or you will bring the embers** like here.”
Fly, my song, to Hiroshima
Fly to the shadow stones
And promise the man in Hiroshima
That it will never happen again
Because the world remembers*** well —
Or they will bring embers like Hiroshima****.
*This may also be “it”, ie, “the bomb”, which is a feminine noun, but changes in its dative form.
**The original word, “Glut” has a number of possible appropriate meanings, including “blaze”, “glow” or “fervour” as well.
***It’s possible there’s an imperative attached to the word “remember” that I’ve missed.
****The delivery of this line suggests a pun on here/Hiroshima.
Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie is a story about the world’s unluckiest woman. Hiroko Tanaka is caught up in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. After recovering from her injuries and accepting her grief, she finds her way after the war to an India on the cusp of Independence and Partition. Later, as the blurb reveals–so no spoilers here–she spends some time in Pakistan before managing to be present in New York in time for September 11. Crikey. Yet she survives it all and, truth be told, the story is not at all as melodramatic or contrived as it might sound.
Hiroko, upon making her way to Delhi, must throw herself on the mercy of her dead fiancée’s estranged sister Ilse (known as Elizabeth in this earliest part of the novel). Their friendship forms the crux of Hiroko’s life. In colonial India, Hiroko promptly falls in love with Sajjad, the Muslim Indian protegé of Ilse’s husband. Later, Ilse’s and Hiroko’s respective sons become similarly entwined. A metaphor brought up a few times in respect of this web of relationships built on trust, secrets, and reliance, is that of a fabled spider who concealed the Prophet and some of his followers from enemies by weaving its web over the opening of the cave where they hid. However, like several of the themes, this one is not carried particularly strongly throughout the piece. For once, I was relieved when the author took her readers aside to tell us, close to the end, what she was trying to get at.
There are many ideas in the novel that are not as fleshed out as they could be. Some themes seem to be situational when they might just as easily have been carried on. Colonialism, for example. It is brought up in the India chapters, because it would be almost impossible to write about 1940s India without making at least some reference to it, but when it might so easily have been continued in the Pakistan chapters, or even contrasted with New York’s multiethnicism and American identity paranoia, it is abandoned as soon as Hiroko and Sajjad depart Delhi. Obviously real life is not often thematically appropriate, and this is a realist novel. I also can’t presume to tell Shamsie what to write about*, but this is but one example of a theme that wasn’t examined throughout the novel.
One of the themes that is well-examined, though, is that of the migrant experience. The foreign appearance; the ability to defy convention by concealing transgression in ignorance; the need to speak one’s mothertongue, even when one is blessed with polyglotism**. The lot of the child of migrants, embarassed by their difference and often lacking a sense of home in their birthplace, is also examined with empathy.
As a whole, the novel is elegantly told, populated with believable and amicable characters, and ambitious in its scope. Yet it feels undercooked. The story and its themes might have benefited from further development and reflection. It is a relatively short piece as it stands, weighing in at just over 350 pages. As unusual as it is for me to say this, I think it could have been better if it had been longer.
*I’m wary of this both because it is a novel and because Shamsie, as a woman of colour born in Pakistan, probably already faces enough pressure to write about such matters. There are certain things women of colour are expected to write about, and colonialism, along with the nature of the migrant identity, and also the oppression of women in their “home” country, are just a number of examples. You’ll note, perhaps, that I did malign celebrated egghead Alain de Botton for gaps in his book The News, but a novel and a philosophical essay purporting to have authority on an issue are two quite different things.
**This was just a bit too convenient. If I could forgive the plot itself for being a little contrived, the language issue pushed the friendship. I’m well aware of people who have a natural knack for languages (would that I were one of them), but Hiroko seems to be some kind of savant. Combine that with a very early paragraph about how Japan’s wartime privations have only heightened her natural beauty–and her permanent scarring–and we’re drifting into Mary Sue country.