Book Review: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

I have a great love and respect for many authors, living and dead; but as far as still living, still writing authors go, Kamila Shamsie is probably my favorite. Her book Kartography is one that I have read a number of times, raved about to everybody I know, and even assigned it as one of the “classics by a still living author” for my Rediscovering the Classics class. And she’s not a one-hit wonder; her other three books delighted me with their language, swept me up in their stories, and made me fall in love with their characters. So you can imagine how excited I was when her fifth book, Burnt Shadows, finally came out in the U.S.

What I found was that Burnt Shadows is unlike any other Shamsie book. I hate to admit that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed all the others. Oh it still has prose so beautiful it’s like reading poetry, and it still has characters intelligent and flawed enough to rival any Greek hero; but it… was… epic. Too epic, I thought.

The story begins in Nagasaki just before the second bomb is dropped, ends in the United States after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and is told in three very separate and unique parts. This is a departure for Shamsie, whose other books, although they may sometimes have a tendency to go back and forth in time through memories, at their hearts are still focused on the story of their one or two main characters in the here and now.

The first part is Hiroko’s, the story of a woman who watches in the worst way imaginable while her home and her fiancé are destroyed by the atomic bomb. Hiroko runs from the effects of the bomb to the home of her dead fiancé’s sister in Delhi. This first part of the story ends when Hiroko marries her (almost) brother-in-law’s Indian law clerk against the advice of her friends.

When the second part of the story begins 20 years have passed. This episode tells the story of Hiroko’s son Raza coming of age in Karachi. A natural with languages, part Indian and part Japanese, but with an English-German extended family, poor Raza doesn’t fit in anywhere, and his search for some kind of home and community ends in tragedy; thus ending the second episode.

The third episode begins still 20 years later. This time Raza’s American pseudo-cousin Kim is our main character. It is just after 9/11 and world politics are land mines. Kim and Raza both make mistakes, suffer losses, and run away… only to find that they can’t escape what’s out there in the world and in the past.

I think I understand what Shamsie was trying to do in this book, but her method just did not appeal to me. The scope of the story was too sweeping, and the different segments too far apart.
Just as I really got into one segment it would end, and I would have trouble moving on to the next part. It was an epic story told in small bites, and the method didn’t cohere very well.

And then there was the matter of politics. I had a hard time enjoying the story with all the political overtones. This is not Shamsie’s fault in the least; I am still just too disillusioned by politics–especially with the gross misuse of the tragedy of 9/11 by some for political gain–to be able to stomach any political commentary; even commentary I may agree with.

I usually burn through Shamsie’s books like someone is going to take it away from me if I set it down, but this one took me a good 3 weeks to read. I found that when I finished one segment I couldn’t move right into the next. I needed a break and some time with another book before I could move on. The result was that the book simply did not feel like the tight, coherent stories I’ve learned to expect from Kamila Shamsie. It was still beautifully written (as all of her books are) and I enjoyed that part of it very much, but the story just did not resonate with me as much as Kartography or Broken Verses did.

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