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~Time and Place - or Times and Places~
The time is a few years ago. A man stands naked and frightened in a cell contemplating that when he dresses again it will probably be in an orange jumpsuit. We don't need to be told what that means. He asks himself "How did it come to this?" and in the next 363 pages we find out.
Nearly 70 years earlier, Hiroko stood on the veranda thinking about Konrad, the man she had just agreed to marry. In a flash of white light Konrad becomes nothing more than a shadow on a rock and Hiroko is scarred for life, the three cranes embroidered on her silk kimono fused to the skin of her back. The time is 1945, the place is Nagasaki.
Shunned by her neighbours Hiroko goes in search of Konrad's sister Elizabeth, and finds her living a privileged life in loveless marriage in Delhi with her husband James. The couple take her into their family but Hiroko doesn't conform and she shocks her hosts by falling in love with their employee Sajjad. She converts to Islam and marries him. With the Partition of India imminent, James encourages the couple to flee to Turkey to escape the bloodshed, but when they want to return they are no longer welcome in the city Sajjad loves. They go instead to Pakistan where many years later they have a son, Raza.
Like his mother, the boy is a talented linguist, picking up languages with ease but repeatedly failing his most crucial school exam. With sharp intellect but no prospect of getting into university, the devil finds work for Raza's idle hands. He gets into trouble and via labyrinthine twists of the plot finds himself in a terrorist training camp. Rescued from hot water he's faced with tragic consequences of his actions and life just goes on getting increasingly complicated with multiple confusions and misunderstandings dogging the family.
I could write thousands of words about the plot but I won't - this really is the bare minimum I can offer to give a flavour of the geographic, political and historic scope of the story without revealing anything that's going to spoil your enjoyment of the book.
~Kamila Shamsie - why doesn't EVERYONE know this fantastic writer?~
Kamila Shamsie is one of my favourite authors and I've read several of her other books but none made such a mark on me as Burnt Shadows. Born in Pakistan but living in London, she's a fearless writer, unafraid to take on the most shocking events of the 20th and early 21st century and present them calmly and unemotionally through the eyes of her characters. From the atomic bombs dropped on Japan through to the attacks on the World Trade Centre, via Partition and the Russian-Afghan war, she moves her characters from country to country to place them in the middle of some of the biggest events of recent history.
~Loved it - every page~
By virtue of making her lead characters great linguists and by giving Raza a genetic mix that means nobody's ever quite sure who he is or where he's from, she gives them a freedom to roam whilst handicapping him and his mother with a sense of never quite belonging wherever they go. They aren't the only ones. Elizabeth and James and their son Harry are all reluctant exiles from the pre-Independence India that they loved and none of the key characters really seems to 'fit' in their own skins.
Burnt Shadows is a story of making your home where you find it, moving on and forgiving those who've trespassed against you, and of the power of loyalty to both family and friends. It's not the story of a single character though. I expected that Hiroko would lead us through the book but she hands the mantle of responsibility for the plot to Raza about half way through without the clumsiness that often goes with a split lead role. Elizabeth and her son Harry and granddaughter Kim each step up to the mark when required to do so - to some extent even poor James does his bit. Hiroko exhibits an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness and moving on and a chameleon-like ability to adapt to her surroundings yet she never knows that her son is driven to take risks by the scars others see in him by virtue of his mother's history as a Nagasaki survivor. Why is Raza so driven to make his mark? Could it be related to the rejection he feels for being 'marked' by the bomb that stole his mother's lover and may still be carried in his genes so many years after? Everybody in this story is searching for something and the lives of most are changed forever by the perception of others who choose to interpret actions in unintended ways.
Who fits where and with whom? It's hard to tell. Who is really what they seem to be and when the chips are down, who can Raza trust? As the plot switches from historic romance to war story to 9/11 spy story, there's something for everyone in this fabulous novel although it's only fair to warn would-be readers that the ending is a bit flat and may leave you with more questions than it answers. I wanted two or three more chapters tucked on the end but when the writing is this good I'm more than happy with what I got. Kamila Shamsie just gets better with every book.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
364 to 384 pp depending on which format you get - mine was a larger format retired library copy.
Available second hand on Amazon for a penny in their marketplace or for a fiver through the main Amazon site