Saturday, 6 June 2009

Burnt Shadows

This is the novel I wanted to win the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction; if this is less deserving and overshadowed by Marilynne Robinson's Home then my imagination cannot extend to how good that novel must be.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is profound yet understated. It is poetic in parts and philisophical in others. It is impressive in scope - from Guantanamo Bay back to Nagasaki on the afternoon of the A-bomb, to Delhi pre Indian independence, to Pakistan post-independence, to New York and Afghanistan post 9/11 - but with concentrated attention to detail.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of the most striking parts of the novel is an editorial choice: the flashing white light when Fat Man fell on the afternoon of August 9th, 1945, is represented upon the page and is extremely effective. On each page of the book too -and on the front cover- are the three black cranes that are a central motif of the novel. Hiroko, the main protagonist, is wearing her dead mother's kimono with a pattern of cranes embroidered on its back when the Atomic bomb falls and this design is burned onto her back. Shamsie revealed in interview that she was inspired by this line from John Hersey's book Hiroshima: "On some undressed bodies the burns had made patterns - of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin) the shape of flowers they had had on their kimonos" and the character of Hiroko was born. I have read that book (it is immensely evocative, as is Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain) and was struck by that line, that image that is burned upon the world's consciousness post-Atomic bomb. Photographs of survivors with these burns inspired Hersey, who in turn inspired Shamsie, and these photographs -along with other infamous and iconic ones of running victims and of the now named A-dome and Peace Memorial, the only building left standing- document one of the cataclysmic events of the Twentieth Century. The image of the three black cranes -and the scars upon Hiroko's back- are central to the novel and haunt her, subsequent events, and the reader. Although the Hiroshima section of Burnt Shadows is the shortest it is also the most effective; Hiroko is branded literally and figuratively, her resentment of being hibakusha ("explosion-affected people") and this is a resounding undercurrent throughout the novel.

I have enjoyed reading a number of novels set in pre and post Independence India, in Afghanistan, and in post 9/11 New York as well as Japanese literature and to blend all of these settings together so seamlessly and epically is astounding. Perhaps the sheer magnitude of its scope is unrealistic but, in my opinion, Burnt Shadows never seemed to grasp but always flowed from one historic event to the next.

This novel left an impact, a shadow, an imprint.


farmlanebooks said...

I agree that the first section in Japan was the best, but I have to disagree a bit. Although the writing was good throughout I felt it was a bit contrived and tried to fit too much into one novel. It was all a bit unrealistic - especially the ending.

It was my second favourite from the Orange list this year, so it can't have been too bad, but the epic stpry line didn't quite work for me.

Paperback Reader said...

I will concede that the ending was over the top, even melodramatic. Most of it was so well researched and realised and yet the ending seemed almost like pulp fiction and was more for effect. The strength of the first section stood out for me, as well as some of the raw emotion throughout, and it still resonated past the closing pages.

I am looking forward to reading The Wilderness based on your review.

farmlanebooks said...

This book might get my vote for the worst ending in a book - ever!!

I look forward to seeing if you prefer The Wilderness. I warn you that it can be a bit confusing in places and is very sad, but if you enjoy books that move you I'm sure you'll like it.

Diane said...

Oh wow, I see we both just finished the same book. Great review. Here is my link:

Samantha said...

It has been very interesting reading your's and Famelanebooks' ideas on this novel. It currently resides in the top 3 of my "next reads" pile! I have been known to "forgive" a not so good ending if much of the book is very good. In particular I am speaking of a recent read like The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I loved so much about this book it didn't matter to me overly much that the ending seemed a bit (or a lot by other's standards!) contrived. I am still looking forward to reading this book very much but have firstly chosen The Elegance of the Hedgehog which I see you liked in May :-)

Karen said...

I'm still trying to decide whether I should add this one to my TBR pile or not!! Your review definitely suggests I should place it in the pile...

mee said...

I'm currently reading Burnt Shadows (well, slowly, for the past months or so). I don't know why, it's not working very well for me. The writing is beautiful, but I don't care much about the characters.


Nymeth said...

I really loved Black Rain, so your mention of it captured my interest. I haven't read Hiroshima yet, nor this, but it sounds like I should. Also, those are all settings and themes that interest me, so that's another reason to think I'd enjoy this.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I definitely appreciate books that move me and I shall let you know how I get on with it.

Diane, I stopped by your post and compared our thoughts! Thanks for linking to it and sharing your thoughts.

Samantha, I hope our opinions have encouraged you to read it. I too am more forgiving of a poor ending if I have overall enjoyed the book and parts of Burnt Shadows still stand out for me.
The Secret Scripture is on my TBR list; I will need to look for your review.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has definitely been one of my favourite books so far this year; I was pleasantly surprised.

Karen, please add it! I will take full responsibility if you don't like it ;).

Mee, I hate when I don't care about the characters and I can understand your reluctance to like the ones in the novel; they aren't portrayed as sympathetically as they could be but I think that may be intentional.
I'm sorry that you aren't enjoying it; I realise that it is not for everyone.

Nymeth, I thought it was important to mention Black Rain for people who are interested in Japan and its literature; my interest is certainly something that attracted me to this book. As I think I have shown in the review, the Nagasaki section was definitely my favourite part, although the briefest; I thought it was rendered powerfully.
Hiroshima is also a very interesting and unbelievably moving read. Hersey follows six survivors and employs the method of literary reporting, similar to Capote's technique In Cold Blood.