July 2024
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Review: Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

Hiroko Tanaka, a young woman living in Nagasaki in World War II, has fallen in love with a German.  They know their lives are constantly in danger, but somehow their love has blossomed regardless.  On the same day that Konrad proposes, the Americans drop a bomb on Nagasaki.  Hiroko’s life changes irrevocably, right down to her skin, on which the birds from her mother’s kimono have been etched in scars.  A few years later, Hiroko finds herself at the home of Konrad’s sister in India, where new love awaits.  Sweeping onwards through to Pakistan and later the United States, this multi-generational work encompasses the depths of the horror of war and the endurance of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy.

I’m not sure it’s possible to like this book, although I know I’ve said I do already.  It is almost relentless in the danger and the pain it causes for its main characters, particularly Hiroko.  In the beginning, it feels too long and it moves very slowly.  While I appreciate the messages the book is trying to convey, it takes a great deal of concentration to get through and it might have benefited from a more concise plot.  The writing is gorgeous, but doesn’t help matters, although it does feel as though we could live in the settings of the book.  Each location feels different, as they should given where they are in the world.  Hiroko moves from Nagasaki to India to Pakistan to New York City, all of which are beautifully drawn with Shamsie’s words.

It’s the message that this book has left me with, however, which is certainly both anti-war and almost anti-nation.  By taking a large time period, Shamsie can show that as human beings, we haven’t learned from our mistakes, and that war is truly horrible in a way that people who haven’t lived through it don’t properly understand.  She also shows us what a lack of education about can do through Hiroko’s son, Raza.  Hiroko tries to shield him from the atrocities of the atomic bomb by speaking little about her own experience, but that only means he doesn’t understand what he’s getting into when violence does encroach upon his life and only learns later the meaning and devastation of violence and loss.  The mistakes are repeated later with another character, still ignorant of what war truly means.  With these characters, it seems to me that the author is trying to express that people are people, by giving voices and faces to those who do cross country boundaries and who may otherwise be considered suspicious.  Nationalism only impairs our ability to relate to others as we stereotype them into something Different.  It’s unquestionable, in the end, that this book has given me a lot to think about.

As such, I don’t know if I’d call Burnt Shadows an enjoyable book, but it is very deep.  I felt that I was left with a lot on my mind and I had learned something about Pakistan in particular in the process (which I did enjoy, I like learning).  So I’m undecided as to whether or not I can recommend it, and instead will leave you with just this review to decide for yourselves.


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