Shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, Burnt Shadows spans the half a century between two events that shocked the world; the nuclear attack on Nagasaki and the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Along the way it covers a multitude of other subjects from Indian Partition to the war in Afghanistan, from the divide between colonial settlers and the native inhabitants of the land they occupy and from the ties that bind family members together to the ties that bind a person to their homeland.
An ambitious novel and yet it begins very simply and with an air of innocence. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda in Urakami Valley to admire the view of terraced slopes lit by a perfectly blue sky. Dressed in a kimono patterned with three black cranes that swoop across the back, she stands quietly; a young woman on the cusp of a new life with the man she loves. Within seconds her dream is destroyed, an explosion throwing her to the ground; the heat fusing something to her skin.
She touches the something else on her back. Her fingers can feel her back but her back cannot feel her fingers. Charred silk, seared flesh. How is this possible? … So much to learn. The touch of dead flesh. The smell — she has just located where the acrid smell comes from — of dead flesh.
In the aftermath of the bomb that obliterates her fiancé Konrad and her community, all that is left are the bird-shaped burns on her back. Two years later she arrives in Delhi, a city in the twilight of the Raj. She is looking to begin a new life and to erase the stigma of being branded a hibakusha, a survivor of the bomb. Slowly she builds a new life, with the help of Konrad’s half sister Elisabeth and the love of the family servant Sajjad Ashraf.
Over the years as she moves home, to Istanbul and Karachi and finally to New York, her endurance is tested to the extreme. Through the redemptive power of love and friendship she is able to escape the shadows of the past. But not so her son Raza. He will never be able to marry the girl he loves because of that past:
It’s your mother. Everyone knows about her.
What about her?
Nagasaki. The bomb. No-one will give their daughter to you in marriage unless they are desperate Raza. You could be deformed. … You might have something you can pass on to your children.
Perhaps it’s his realisation he is a marked man that drives Raza to take the rather naive step of heading to an Afghanistan training camp with his Afghan friend Abdullah. The experience simply deepens his feeling of enduring guilt, and lead him to make yet another mistake when he joins forces with a former covert CIA Operator in Afghanisation to run a private security firm.
Raza is a complex character but it’s Hiroko, a woman who quietly makes a new life for herself without ever forgetting the past, who stole the show for me. She holds the fragments of this epic story together and whenever she is missing from the text, the book seems to lose its identity. At times the didactic element of the writing was intrusive but overall I was drawn to the lives of these characters and admired how Kamila Shamsie roamed so widely across the canvas of international politics.