Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie portrays the journey of a Hiroko Tanaka, a girl of Japanese Origin, across multiple geographies and cultures. The story begins with an arresting image of three bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. From there, the story slowly unravels the interwoven stories of Weiss, Burton and Ashraf Families, spanned across generations. Hiroko, a survivor of August 9, 1945, Nagasaki Bombing, Hibakusha as they say in Japanse, travels to India to meet her late fiance, Konrad Weiss’s sister Elizabeth Burton.
As the backdrop changes to Delhi’s summer and it’s blazing Gulmohars, Hiroko finds a surprising, yet a truehearted friend in Elizebeth Burton and a soulmate in Sajjad Ashraf. Amid India-Pakistan separation in 1947 and the subsequent violence, Hiroko and Sajjad find themselves married and are forced to settle in Karachi, Pakistan unexpectedly. The fate keeps bringing Hiroko under the shadow of many historic events like the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki, India Pakistan Partition, Afghan war, Nuclear tensions in Asia and the 9/11 bombing. It is moving to see, how a survivor of such mass destruction still holds on to humanity until the end of the book.
Burnt shadows are as poetic as it can be, and a new meaning unravels in front of you each time you read it. The author has carved every character with such a finesse that the situations and emotions characters go through, will create a lasting impression on you. Occasionally, the writing seems to be the excelling point than the story, especially in the end.
The story is cast in a huge geographical and cultural canvas.The juxtapositioning of noted massacres of human history and the personal loss and sorrow is notable. The author brilliantly positioned love and humanity in such a contrasting environment of war and yet managed to invoke the right emotions without confusion. The wartorn Urakami, Delhi on the verge of Partition, Refugees at Karachi, the rawness of 9/11 bombing, the list of historical events author has picked to tell the story goes on.
Sajjad stood up quietly and walked over to her. “There is a phrase I have heard in English: to leave someone alone with their grief. Urdu has no equivalent phrase. It only understands the concept of gathering around and becoming ‘ghum–khaur’—grief-eaters—who take in the mourner’s sorrow.”
― Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows
Along with geographical grandness, Author also handles the nuances of multiple cultures very well. Many characters in the Novel come across multiple cultures as part of their journey and it is wonderful to see how each of them assimilate an entirely foreign culture, still, keep a part of their heart true to their own. The unfamiliarity of a new culture, the reluctance in pursuing its ways, and the inevitable acceptance after knowing it in depth, this cycle is a recurring theme with every character and the author does it with a distinct emotional portrayal for each character.Another motif you find all over is that of a story of ‘Spider and Islam’. Two families, The buttons, and The Ashrafs, with deeply interconnected roots, go through a series of events having a similar theme as that of ‘Spider and Islam’. As a reader, it is interesting to discern this patterns.
Another notable portion comes towards the end when author pits two popular ideologies, which are at odds. She does it with such nuances that, its impossible not to empathize with both of them. Abdulla, a conservative Muslim, who finds himself at the wrong end of the law and Kim Burton, still raw from the wounds of 9/11 and her personal loss, come together in the end to voice out the obvious religion versus terrorism arguments.My favorite part of that entire dialogue is a soft toy analogy using which author choose to show, how dissimilar backgrounds and situations lead to opposing beliefs in individuals and how difficult it is not to sympathize with both the ideologies. Both the arguments have its own standing in the reader’s mind.
Considering how elaborate author was in the beginning, I am rather disappointed with the abrupt ending . I looked up from the last chapter as an unsatiated reader who could do with a little more specific ending. Despite this little glitch, I enjoyed the read and really took my own sweet time to savor the book. Some of the quotes from the book have turned my favorite now. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a memorable read