I’m procrastinating today, so what better way to do that then begin writing my review of Kamila Shamsie’s FIFTH novel, Burnt Shadows (2009, Picador). Shamsie is a particularly prolific writer, publishing a novel very handful of years since the turn of the millennium, but Burnt Shadows is the first of hers that I’ve read. Shamsie, like many of her South Asian anglophone writing counterparts (e.g. Salman Rushdie, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid) is difficult to locate within a specific literary lineage or taxonomy. So, as we have been advancing under the “heterogeneity” effect at this blogging community, she fits quite perfectly, as Shamsie is of Pakistani descent, was brought up in Pakistan, although has done some of her schooling in the United States. She was very much inspired and influenced by the work and mentorship of Agha Shahid Ali, a poet who I’ve been meaning to review for some time, but have not found the time to do so. Burnt Shadows was just recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize in Fiction.
Shamsie’s novel is, to put it simply, ambitious. Its modus operandi seems to be to draw together the lengthy history of world conflicts that have occurred within the last century, specifically drawing on World War 2, the Partition of India in 1947, and the ongoing and much underinvestigated Aghanistan War. The novel opens in Nagasaki where the fledgling love between Hiroko Tanaka, a gifted linguist, and Konrad Weiss has just begun to bloom in earnest only to be effectively cut short by the atomic bombing. What is of course interesting to me here is Shamsie’s choice to situate the novel, more or less, from the perspective of Hiroko Tanaka. While Hiroko does not always have center stage within the novel, it will be her character from which all others will be linked by the time the plot has concluded and it will be her strength of will and perspicacity that leads her to be a survivor, over and over again. Inasmuch as this novel is one about war and its ability to lead people to make drastic and often perilous decisions, it is also a novel about disguises and illusions that people create around themselves and others as a way to ameliorate loss and melancholy. As Hiroko seeks to find new meaning in her life, she will travel to India just before its Partition. India is the location where Hiroko believes she might find some form of Konrad still extant in the manner of his estranged family. Once there she finally meets, Elizabeth Burton, formerly Ilse Weiss and Konrad’s sister, who is married and living in India with her husband, James Burton. They have one son, Henry (nicknamed Harry), who is off in England at boarding school. Another major character that appears here is Sajjad Ali Ashraf, who works as a legal assistant to James Burton, although they tend to spend much more time playing chess than getting any work done. As the lives of Sajjad, James, Elizabeth, and Hiroko intertwine and take new shape in India, the novel moves forward, setting up more tensions and problematic encounters, where Hiroko, in particular, begins to see that there may be a new future for her somewhere.
Shamsie’s novel is peculiar in that it is imagines so many plots within so many national territories and so many different historical periods. The gap between this novel and her last portends a probable long research period spent in libraries and in traveling as there is a certain scope to this novel that few can manage and pull off so successfully. In the space of about four hundred pages, the readers manage to imaginatively follow characters in Japan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Canada, and the United States. There is also a harrowing human smuggling sequence that requires one of the characters to cross multiple national boundaries via surreptitious passages. The connections that Shamsie creates across times, geographies, continents, and nations, is a testament to the wide and encrypted reach of Empire, especially America’s covert operations in the Middle and Far East. Shamsie’s novel also makes abundantly clear why Arab American and Middle Eastern Studies programs are pivotal to understanding the new politics related to the global economy and it is here in very salient and pressing contemporary concerns that Burnt Shadows takes flight.
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