This is also published on my Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/851584737
The last Pakistani author I remember reading was Nadeem Aslam (whose ‘Maps For Lost Lovers’ was a brilliant book). Kamila Shamsie is someone I’ve wanted to read for a while, and finally got the chance. Too bad I didn’t get around to this earlier. Burnt Shadows is a lovely, multi-layered, globe and era trotting book, set around human relationships and fractured psyches.
The story opens on 9 August 1945 in Nagasaki, Japan. One of the main protagonists is on the cusp of an elated life, in a budding relationship with German Konrad Weiss, a gentle soul. Unbeknownst to them, lives and histories are going to be forever altered on the fateful day an atom bomb is deployed on their city, irretrievably changing life for its survivors. A disoriented, disillusioned and crestfallen Hiroko finds her way to Delhi, in the last days before independence is proclaimed from the British Raj. Here, she ends up at the Burton’s, James and Ilse (brother-in-law and sister of Konrad), and despite the seemingly irredeemable pain she has undergone, starts getting drawn into a tentatively sprouting romance with their helper/servant, Sajjad Ashraf (who, ironically, was introduced to the Burton household by Konrad).
With partition and the horrors and confusions it creates in the lives and livelihoods of inhabitants of the sub-continent, Sajjad and Hiroko find themselves setting up a life in Karachi, and making the best they can of their lot, away from Sajjad’s beloved Delhi. This thread of the tale also focuses on their son, Raza, as well as Harry Burton, the son of their previous benefactors. The final section focuses on an America just after the 9/11 attacks, as the protagonists tales are finally brought to mostly satisfying conclusions (not in terms of their individual fates, but as story arcs to the readers). All through this, the lives of successive generations of the Burton’s and the Ashraf’s remain intertwined, each of their live stories imposing upon the other and affecting it in ways unimaginable.
The writing is mostly consistently beautiful, with a lyrical quality to the prose which seeps into her tender and obviously caring descriptions of her initially disparate characters. This, in turn, helps us to identify and care for the same characters and their fates, which is probably the greatest strength of this novel. With some telling but subtle observations on war, justice, loss, redemption and second chances at life and love, Shamsie brilliantly captures themes which are universal in their appeal yet extremely personal in the inner turmoil they engulf each individual life in. Violence inevitably begets violence here, and the effects of devastating events resonate through the ages affecting successive generations. But, through the actions of her characters, she also shows that love and compassion along with an indomitable human will can create moments of utter bliss in between the chaos, and give kindling hope to the hope of better tomorrows, maybe not immediately, but eventually.
I really liked this one, and would recommend it to any fiction lover with a bit of patience to sift through a multi-layered novel.