Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

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(left is my advanced copy and right is the published cover)

Burnt Shadows is a pot mix of everything. Setting in various countries, check. People from different culture who speak different languages, check. Mix them up. Mix them up as much as possible, check. A German has relationship with a Japanese in Japan. The Japanese goes to India and has a relationship with an Indian. They are later forced to live in Pakistan. The sister of the German married an English then move to live in India. Their son is somehow later an American. The Japanese and the Indian has a son who is born a Pakistani who later works for the CIA together with the American.

The novel intends to connect the historical moments of bombing in Nagasaki, the war in India which divided Pakistan, and September 11. Hence the mix of everybody from all these places, told through three generations. Does it work? Err.. I wish it did. Too many things were just too hard to believe. The characters seem to talk and act in the same way and that couldn’t work with all these people from completely different background. A Japanese acts like a Pakistani and a Pakistani acts like an American.

Another major element that kept distracting me throughout the book is a couple of characters who are able to speak 4-5 languages. Being a bilingual who is learning a third language, I know how hard it is to pass as a local no matter how fluent your second language is. The accent shows. A little off tune or pronunciation could easily set you apart from the native speakers.  There is this man who could pass as someone from the same country by just learning the language from a school bus driver. I had problem in believing any of that. He seems to have a superhuman ability to absorb languages and that’s kind of comical. Of course, with this superhuman ability he could go to work with the secret agents of arguably the most powerful country in the world. Just like James Bond.

Then he goes all the way to save a friend who he had a brief friendship with some twenty years ago (Oh yea he’s an Afghan, so that’s another nationality thrown in the mix for you). Risking his own life, his mother’s, and the daughter of a person he owes a lot to. Though some might find this action perversely heroic, I rolled my eyes and said Oh please. I just. Didn’t. Buy it. I found him an incredibly selfish character and completely had no sympathy for him.

I’m sure there are many more examples that nudged me here and there, but I read the book in quite long period of time on and off (at least a few months), so I may start forgetting details in the first parts.

The prose is written pretty well and I admit there were some great moments. But I dislike her style to lead us in believing one thing which ends up to be another. This is emphasized by the feeling of disorientation every time a new chapter begins. Why? I asked. Why disorient reader all the time? I felt like I never knew any of the characters well until the end of the book.

Burnt Shadows is shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize. While I can somewhat understand why, the book generally left me a bit frustrated. Other people seem to like it more than me so please check the other reviews below for balance of opinions, though the general consensus sounds like the novel is too ambitious and therefore may have failed in deliverance.

3 stars
2009, 369 pp

Awards
Shortlisted for 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction

First line
Later, the one who survives will remember that day as grey, but on the morning of 9 August itself both the man from Berlin, Konrad Weiss, and the schoolteacher, Hiroko Tanaka, step out of their houses and notice the perfect blueness of the sky, into which white smoke blooms from the chimneys of the munitions factories.

Last line
Outside, at least, the world went on.

Quotes

“I love that about the Americans — the way they see certain kinds of craziness as signs of character.” ~ p62

“Heaven lies at the feet of the mother…” ~ p284 (I knew this quote since I was small. Never thought that I would find it in an English novel. It seems to be an Islamic quote.)

“She felt about people who believed in the morality of their nations exactly as she felt about those who believed in religion: it was baffling, it seemed to defy all reason, and yet she would never be the one to attempt to wrestle the comfort of illusory order away from someone else.” ~ p330

“War is like disease. Until you’ve had it you don’t know it. But no. That’s a bad comparison. At least with disease everyone thinks it might happen to them one day. You have a pain here, swelling there, a cold which stays and stays. You start to think maybe this is something really bad. But war — countries like yours they always fight wars, but always somewhere else. It’s why you fight more wars than anyone else; because you understand war least of all.” ~ p345, an Afghan to an American

Also reviewed by

Farm Lane Books Blog | BookNAround | As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves | The Burton Review | APOOO Bookclub | Bibliophile by the Sea | Raging Bibliomania | The Mookse and the Gripse | Bailey’s and Books

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